Categories
Interview

In conversation with Devaki Jain

Devaki Jain: With Permission from Devaki Jain and Speaking Tiger Books

A woman who at eighty-eight brought out her autobiography based on the urgings of among others, Alice Walker, author of  the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Colour Purple , and  Doris Lessing, the Nobel Laureate — only much later. Like Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, her biography is called The Brass Notebook. Does it talk anti-war or feminism or womanism? I am not sure. What it does show is a woman who despite being surrounded by patriarchal norms managed to live her life as she wanted without resorting to schools of ‘isms’ or feeling injured. In the process, she met many great people and tried to bring in changes or reforms.

Devaki Jain, born in 1933,  graduated in economics and philosophy from St Anne’s College, Oxford and is an Honorary Fellow of the college. She is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa.

Needless to say the best introduction to her work and her person comes from well-known feminist journalist,  Gloria Steinem: “Your heart and world will be opened by reading The Brass Notebook the intimate and political life of Devaki Jain, a young woman who dares to become independent even as a country of India does. Because she’s also my oldest friend I can tell you there is no one like her, yet only here in her writings have I learned the depth, breadth and universality of adventures.”

The interview probably reinforces her non-conformist outlook. In an age when intellectuals bicker over terminology and social media becomes the fulcrum of our lives, she lives by her convictions. Despite writing an absolutely gripping autobiography, she has revealed only a bit of herself. Through the interview, I tried to entice more but I got only a very brief glimmer. Her autobiography painted a liberal, liberated and open thinker who fearlessly fought her way against patriarchal and colonial mindsets. In this exclusive, I invite you to savour her spirit at a stage in life when most talk mainly of geriatric issues. Devaki Jain for you —

You were a very independent lady for your times. Could you find parallels of women like yourself in diverse cultures?

Women have been revolutionaries, radical thinkers, resistance leaders, dissenters for centuries. There are not many records of this but one of my colleagues found that there were groups of women, for example, in China even as far as the 12th century who were dissenters. Therefore, the knowledge may not have been recorded but striking for independence and striking for justice has been a part of women’s lives for centuries. 

What drove you to be as you were? What made you feel that marriage was not the ultimate aim of all existence in the 1950s and 1960s?

(a)What drives people to do things differently? This is not an easy question to answer, people are born differently with different aspirations and different nervous systems. It is like asking an artist what helped you to be such a brilliant artist. Such questions are not appropriate. 

(b) I think this question is badly framed that I felt that marriage was not the ultimate aim, it was not like that. It was just that I felt there were other things that I wanted to do.

A young Devaki Jain. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

How supportive was your family, especially your father, of your sense of independence?

My father was an enigma, while he wanted to submit to orthodoxy, he was also very respectful of those who wanted to do things differently. So, in a sense, I think he was supportive of my desire for independence. 

You did face some amount of familial sexual harassment. Did it scar you for life? How did you get over the trauma?

My uncle’s sexual assault on me did not scar me for life, there was no particular need to get over the trauma. In a situation of living in cloisters with family bounds there is no space for lifelong traumas.

You spoke of how funding went inadvertently hand in hand with a different kind of colonial outlook. Would you say that is still true?

No, currently I think both the donors and the receivers have understood the difference and respect the difference.

Womanism is a term you have spoken of in your book. How is this different from feminism in your perspective?

I was basically supporting Alice Walker’s definition and I support her perspective. Please refer to my quotation from Alice Walker*.

[*Alice Walker quote from Pg 173-174, The Brass Notebook, Speaking Tiger, 2020: “As long as the world is dominated by racial ideology that places whites above people of colour, the angle of vision of the womanist, coming from a culture of colour, will be of a deeper, more radical penetration. This is only logical. Generally speaking, for instance, white feminists are dealing with the oppression they receive from white men, while women of colour are oppressed by men of colour as well as white men, as well as by many white women. But on the joyful side, which we must insist on honouring, the womanist is, like the creator of the word, intent on connecting with the earth and cosmos, with dance and song. With roundness, thankfulness and joy. Given a fighting chance at living her own life, under oppression that she resists, the womanist has no or few complaints. Her history has been so rough—captured from her home, centuries of enslavement, apartheid, etc—she honours Harriet Tubman by daily choosing freedom over the fetters of any internalized slavery she might find still lurking within herself. Whatever women’s liberation is called, it is about freedom. This she knows. Having said this, I have no problem being called “feminist” or “womanist.” In coining the term, I was simply trying myself to see more clearly what sets women of colour apart in the rainbow that is a world movement of women who have had enough of being second–and third–class citizens of the earth. One day, if earth and our species survive, we will again be called sacred and free. Our proper names.”]

Do you think women’s issues across the world are similar? How should they be dealt with?

It is believed that women’s oppression comes from patriarchy which of course is worldwide. I do not think I can answer the second part of the question – “how should it be dealt with?” — except writing three other books.

With Fidel Castro in Cuba as a member of the South Commission. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

You have spoken of how the South Commission fell through. Can you tell us why? Is this what happens very often?

The South Commission fell apart because of a failure of solidarity between the south countries. It was a political statement to join the South together as an economic platform. When it failed, it failed all that. 

You tried to bring many changes for the welfare of women across India and beyond. Will you tell us a bit about the perceived problems and solutions that we could find?

I do not think I attempted to bring changes for the welfare of women. I think I was basically pointing out the contribution that women made to the economy and how they were being discriminated against. 

What are your future plans, presuming you are going to be a grand dame of 150 years?

I would like to write, write and write.

What would be the advice you would like to give young women living in today’s world?

Follow your dreams and don’t be frightened of orthodoxy. 

Thank you for giving us some of your time.

Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, Devaki Jain, Lakshmi Jain at a reception. With permission of Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger
With Dr Julius Nyere (centre) in Cuba, 1989. With permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books
With Desmond & Leah Tutu, Pretoria, 1998. with permission from Devaki Jain & Speaking Tiger Books

All the photographs are published with thanks to the author, Devaki Jain, and the publisher, Speaking Tiger Books.

.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

The Brass Notebook

 A recently penned autobiography by eminent economist Devaki Jain, written based on a suggestion made by Doris Lessings in 1958, with a forward by Amartya Sen and reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha.

Title: The Brass Notebook – A memoir

Author: Devaki Jain

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

This is an unusual memoir. Unusual because it isn’t archetypal, not old-fashioned nor even written in a sequential order. The autobiography is set apart into personal and professional years, covering all that happened in a long and distinguished career.

The Brass Notebook by the celebrated economist-writer, Devaki Jain, is structured in such a way that it is no-holds-barred and edifying. In the brilliant life account, she recounts her own story and also that of an entire generation and a nation coming into its own.

Born in 1933, in Mysore, Karnataka, Devaki Jain was the daughter of the Dewan (prime minister) in the Princely States of Mysore and Gwalior. A student of Mysore University, where she studied Mathematics and Economics, she furthered her education in St Anne’s College, Oxford University and graduated in Economics and Philosophy, where she is now an Honorary Fellow.


Devaki Jain made significant contributions to feminist economics, social justice, and women’s empowerment in India. From 1963 to 69, she was a lecturer in economics at Miranda House, Delhi University. She moved on from teaching to full-time research and publication as the director of the Institute of Social Studies Trust.

Over the years, Devaki Jain founded a wide range of institutions such as the Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era (DAWN), a Third World network of women social scientists, and a research Centre in Delhi — Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST). She had been a member of several policy-making bodies in India and abroad, including the State Planning Board of Karnataka; the erstwhile South Commission, established in 1987 under the chairmanship of Dr Julius Nyerere; the Advisory Committee for UNDP Human Development Report on Poverty (1997), and the Eminent Persons Group associated with the Graca Machel Committee (UN) on the impact on children of armed conflict.

A recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa, the eighty-seven-year-old wrote: “It was difficult to reveal my personal life, but because I felt that my story could be a source of strength for many women, I decided to share both my political engagements and my personal adventures.” Her earlier works include Close Encounters of Another Kind: Women and Development Economics and Harvesting Feminist Knowledge for Public Policy: Rebuilding Progress.

With a ‘Foreword’ by Amartya Sen, The Brass Notebook has been inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Not just the title, but the idea of the book itself was suggested by Lessing when Jain first met her in 1958. It took Jain 60 years to honour that advice.

In the memoir, Devaki Jain begins with her childhood in south India — a life of comfort and ease. But there were restrictions too, that come with growing up in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, and the rarely spoken about dangers of predatory male relatives. 

She writes in the autobiography, “While most of the other students, largely Anglo-Indian or Goan Christians, would walk or cycle from their nearby homes, my younger sister and I came to school every day, to our great embarrassment, in a coach drawn by a beautiful chestnut brown horse. There were no buses or any form of public transport from where we lived to the Cantonment. It was like two different cities. We wore the standard school uniform: a blue serge pleated skirt with a white shirt, tucked neatly in, and a brown-and-gold tie with diagonal stripes. We all sang the school anthem–‘Brown and Gold’–with great fervor, every morning at assembly.

I loved the various prayers and litanies that were part of the Roman Catholic tradition of the school. I would go to the chapel, make the sign of the cross, and sing all the hymns, ‘do’ the rosary (a friend gave me one to pray with). The rosary had to be hidden when I was at home, and my private devotions restricted to the bathroom. Like so many girls who feel the aesthetic appeal of Catholicism, I wanted more than anything to be a nun. Of course, I breathed nothing of these thoughts to my family at home, upper-caste Hindus who would have been shocked at one of their children abandoning both her family’s religion and hopes of a happy domestic life.

“As it was, we were not allowed to enter the house proper without first shedding our uniforms, bathing and changing in the bathroom which we were to enter by the back door. We had two very orthodox grandmothers living with us who regarded close proximity to Christians as polluting.”

Elsewhere in the memoir she writes about the Gandhian way of life at Wardha Ashram: “Another experience, which took me deeply into the ethos of India’s freedom movement, while I was still cocooned in the orthodox family, was a student seminar in Bangalore in 1953. This was convened by the Quakers, in this case the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Normally I would not be allowed to go to such workshops and conferences, but as I have mentioned earlier in this memoir, my brother Sreedhar had me invited. He was studying in the US and was drawn to the spirit and culture of the Quakers.

“At the seminar, I was gripped by the simple attire and eclectic ideas of two young men, aged twenty-one and nineteen, who had come all the way from Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha–one British, David Hoggett, and the other Indian, Vasant Palshikar. I was fascinated by their attitude, behaviour, clothing and ideas. They were living in Wardha at the Sarva Seva Sangh Ashram. They dressed like Gandhi–that is, dhotis made of khadi, tucked high up between their legs, a light sleeveless banyan, vest, also made of khadi, and coarse handmade leather chappals. They were very calm, friendly and totally at ease with the mixed bag of people that we were.”

Ruskin College, Oxford, gave Devaki Jain her first taste of freedom in 1955, at the age of twenty-two. Oxford brought her a degree in philosophy and economics — and hardship, as she washed dishes in a cafe to pay her fees. It was here, too, that she had her early encounters with the sensual life. With rare candor, she writes of her romantic liaisons in Oxford and Harvard and falling in love with her ‘unsuitable boy’– her husband, Lakshmi Chand Jain, whom she married against her father’s wishes. 

Devaki’s professional life saw her becoming deeply involved with the cause of ‘poor’ women — workers in the informal economy, for whom she strove to get a better deal. In the international arena, she joined cause with the concerns of the colonized nations of the south, as they fought to make their voices heard against the rich and powerful nations of the former colonizers. 

The book — divided into seven parts and running into a little over two hundred pages and with photographs from the album —  is as absorbing as thought-provoking. In all these encounters and anecdotes, what sparkles is Devaki Jain’s uprightness in telling the story. In the chronicle, there is a message for women across generations: one can experience the good, the bad and the ugly, and remain standing to tell the story. Honesty permeates the narrative in whatever challenges Devaki Jain has faced in her life.

An entrancing memoir, The Brass Notebook is a must-read for women who want to know how to survive and succeed in a patriarchal society, for men to know that women are not a weaker sex but just uninformed about their inherent strength, and for policymakers to know that even seven decades after Independence, the basic flaws in their policies on women’s empowerment have still not been addressed.

.

Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL