‘The Brass Notebook: A Memoir’ review: An economist’s lifelong quest for autonomy in a man’s world

Devaki Jain, a champion of women's rights, witnessed some defining moments in the shaping of India as a nation of contradictions

October 31, 2020 04:50 pm | Updated November 01, 2020 05:18 pm IST

The expansive blurb of Devaki Jain’s The Brass Notebook: A Memoir , with a Foreword by Amartya Sen, gives too much away in its enthusiasm for the ‘no holds barred’ account.

The author, a Padma Bhushan awardee with well-recorded accomplishments in economics, writes as if she were talking animatedly to her readers. At the virtual book launch of the book on October 3, she laughingly said she would not advise anyone to venture into the writing of a memoir, but that hasn’t dimmed her effort. The title is a nod to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , and the author compares her own life to that of the brass often seen in south Indian kitchens.

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Quiet resilience

Those of us who are privileged to remember our grandmothers and great-grandmothers with some richness of memory will be able to relate easily to the early chapters, which include excerpts from a diary the author kept. From the “torment and confusion” of the young thoughts she shares, she goes on to be resolute in her life choices, including her marriage to (the now late) Lakshmi Jain, despite severe objections from her dearly loved father, a dewan to the Princely States of Mysore and Gwalior. Born to a life of some advantage, the author lays bare the inter-personal conflicts women often face in their quest for autonomy despite this. With matter-of-fact clarity, she also recalls child sexual abuse by a family member that was to terrify her; romantic encounters and a playful inner world of sexual desires; recurrent neuroses as a young mother and wife to a public figure; and the blow to her self-worth by the ‘vengeful wrath of a sexual predator’, an eminent Swedish economist she does not name.

Still, it’s the luminous women of her family and their quiet resilience that she brings to life with particular care. Eventually, it was women from more impoverished circumstances that were to become the focus of her work as an academic and policy-maker hobnobbing with global figures.

Photos of icons

A section on photographs from her personal album features austere B&W images of early family life as well as later, grey-and-white-haired prints with icons such as Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere and Desmond Tutu.

Her abbreviated notes on her professional life offer a concise summary of her work in interpreting data on women’s role in labour; travelling extensively to find stories that would serve as economic models and case studies; the celebrated “deep and long friendship” with Gloria Steinem, who introduced her to the term ‘feminism’; and documenting extensively the impact of poverty on women, despite never being “an influential academic economist”.

As with many of her generation of ethically engaged nation builders, Devaki Jain witnessed, and offers through the lens of her particular, ‘game for anything’ perspective, some of the defining moments in the shaping of India as a nation of impossible contradictions and courageous hope.

It seems appropriate then, to conclude with this quote by Moroccan writer and sociologist Fatema Mernissi, among the author’s many distinguished friends and associates, which she appends to the start of her memoir: “A woman can walk miles without taking one single step forward. As a child born in a harem, I instinctively knew that to live is to open closed doors. To live is to look outside. To live is to step out. Life is trespassing.”

The Brass Notebook: A Memoir ; Devaki Jain, Speaking Tiger, ₹599.

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