It’s the early 1970s in New Delhi. Devaki Jain is a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies at the Delhi School of Economics, married to a man whom she loves as passionately as he loves her, and mother to two young boys. It’s not a happy time in her life. Jain feels horribly overwhelmed, to the point of contemplating suicide.
In this dark time, as she struggles with her growing anxieties, Jain finds herself wondering whether the solution is to add another husband to the mix. “There’s a certain appeal in the idea of the public husband, the impressive man of public achievement, and the other a modest householder,” Jain writes in her memoir, The Brass Notebook, released by Speaking Tiger last week. Ultimately, she dismisses the idea as a “silly fantasy” for a very pragmatic and personal reason: “I couldn’t see myself managing a sane sex life with two men.”
Who’d have thought that the memoir of an 87-year-old economist would have readers contemplating (albeit briefly) threesomes and polyamory?
To some, Devaki Jain is an acclaimed developmental economist who has spent years investigating how gendered inequalities cripple our society. She founded the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) in 1966 and used field-based studies to show that data on women’s economic contribution was not calculated properly and that women shared the greater burden of poverty.
She was one of the founding members of a network of scholars and activists from the Global South called DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era); she worked closely with the Planning Commission and was a member of the Karnataka Planning Board. In 2006, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan for her contribution to social justice and the empowerment of women.
To those with a fondness for trivia, she’s the daughter-in-law of the freedom fighter Chameli Devi Jain. Some may know Devaki Jain’s sons — senior advocate Gopal Jain and NDTV journalist Sreenivasan Jain. Her list of friends and acquaintances includes the economist Amartya Sen (who’s written the foreword to her memoir); the writer and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, who introduced Jain to feminism; and the novelist Doris Lessing, whose The Golden Notebook inspired the title of Jain’s memoir. Also, during a trip to America, Jain met Rosa Parks.
The Brass Notebook offers an overview of this remarkable life. Across 200-odd pages, Jain lets us shadow her as she travels to elite spaces around the world and through grassroots India. She is a charming storyteller, mixing in tales of her adventures hitchhiking across Europe in the 1950s, as well as a love story with the Gandhian activist and writer LC Jain.
Remembering their story was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the memoir for Jain and unexpectedly, it also gave her the opportunity to process her grief at losing her husband, who died in 2010. “That grief is still so deep in me that getting it out… was something I needed to do,” Jain told Wknd.
The Brass Notebook is a portrait of a past that feels golden, filled with idealism, grit and hope. “I wanted it [the memoir] to be something related to history, episodes where I am there, but the episode is bigger than me,” Jain said.
It may not be the most literary memoir — there’s a disjointed quality to some of the writing, which without warning abandons chronology in favour of exploring certain themes across decades. But the book is rich with insight and anecdote. What makes it particularly special is Jain’s candour, especially when she writes about pleasure. “I’d always felt that being a man was a great advantage, but after falling in love and after experiencing love with my lover, I began to enjoy being a woman,” she said.
The Brass Notebook also has a bombshell of a revelation in which Jain talks about what happened after she was sexually harassed by “an eminent Swedish economist” while working as a research assistant for him, in 1958.
According to Jain, she was effectively cornered into writing her memoir by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, who gave her a grant for the project. It’s the kind of support and championing that most writers can only dream of, and Jain is aware that this is yet another layer of privilege in her semi-charmed life. Some aspects, like being the daughter of the illustrious civil servant MA Sreenivasan, are just plain luck. Others — like her glittering academic record and being an Honorary Fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford — are the fruits of innate ability combined with hard work.
“Privilege is something I’ve really enjoyed and experienced,” Jain said. “I cannot say that it embarrassed me to be privileged when I tried to work for a more just society. But privilege is something that gives you access, and certainly, I’ve enjoyed that access.”
Briefly, thanks to The Brass Notebook, the rest of us can pretend to enjoy it too.
Another remarkable woman who is a contemporary of Jain’s and released her memoir last year is the critic, novelist and translator Shanta Gokhale. One Foot on the Ground is a delightful read, peppered with some fantastic adventures. Like Jain, Gokhale is candid about her personal life and keenly aware of the privilege she enjoyed. Read together, One Foot on the Ground and The Brass Notebook offer a fascinating portrait of society, women, patriarchy and feminism in newly independent India.