“The Brass Notebook” by Devaki Jain, Speaking Tiger Books


Book Review
Anjana Basu

The Brass Notebook by Devaki Jain
Speaking Tiger / INR 599/

Devaki Jain, economist and writer, was a friend of Gloria Steinem, Iris Murdoch, Amartya Sen – who wrote the foreword to the book – and many others.  Devaki 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. In her time she spearheaded many other initiatives for the well being of women in India and received the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India for her contribution to social justice and the empowerment of women, fighting against difficult odds with a smile on her face and always in a sari.

She is a woman who reveals how feminist the conservative Indian woman can be. Born into a South India family, her parents married at the ages of 11 and 16 but managed to transform an arranged affair into a love story. From them Devaki inherited her liberal frame of mind, something that led her to stay on in England after her father took her there on a visit. 

For someone born in the 1930’s Devaki was a great believer in a woman’s independence. She hitchhiked with a young man across Europe without any qualms and without encountering sexual harassment, though she did encounter sexual predators during her academic career. For example, in 1958, she was harassed by an ‘eminent Swedish economist’ whose research assistant she was.  Devaki also had the courage to cut across the divides of caste and marry a Jain from a trading community, outraging her Brahmin family. Possibly she moved through a time which was more sophisticated and yet more innocent in many ways – a world before #MeToo.

Devaki’s memoir is straightforward straight talking. She is clear about her relationships and the social evils that she encountered as she grew up, including molestation when she was a child, which she took to her mother and aunts instead of hiding behind embarrassment and making the issue worse. What is interesting is when she notes the social traditions that were designed to oppress women – like her sister’s isolation followed by a public announcement during her first menstruation and Devaki’s unmarried aunt who was treated like unpaid labour in the household.

Also interesting are the issues she faced when she fell in love with Lakshmi Jain and went against the caste divide that alienated her normally liberal father. She also makes no bones about her physical relationship with the man who became her husband before their marriage which was delayed to give her room to pursue her academics.

While people would marvel at the numbers of eminent personalities she came into contact with during the course of her career the book will be remembered for Devaki’s candidness which is remarkable for a woman in her 80’s who came from the background that she did at the time in which she did. She called her book ‘The Brass Notebook’ inspired by a writer who struggled to coordinate the seemingly irreconcilable parts of her life in a book and finally achieved some order through the use of different coloured notebooks. The woman’s most precious memories were recorded in a gold notebook. Devaki, with characteristic individuality chose to make her notebook of brass; a more useful and durable metal than gold and used her writing to help her get over her grief at her husband’s passing. 

Easy to read with stories that will certainly surprise – like Devaki’s confessing whether that at one point she contemplated polyandry – the book will provide insights to those interested in women’s lives  in a pre Independence India and in Devaki’s seminal contributions to the fields of feminist economics and women’s empowerment.

Anjana Basu