By Neha Kirpal
Born in 1933, Devaki Jain was a ‘sport’ in the true sense – game for anything as a child, however unusual or risky. In The Brass Notebook (Speaking Tiger, 2020), the feminist economist and academician has sportingly put down a no-holds-barred, intimate and political memoir that chronicles her colourful life and journey.
She writes that she was not just born free but also seized freedom every chance she got. At the age of 12, she wanted to get a sex change. Thereafter, she wanted to be a doctor, a neurosurgeon, a dancer and a film star.
“I climbed the tallest trees, went horse riding, did not spend my time merely envying my brothers their bicycles but riding them,” she writes. She did all of these things, disregarding the conventions that tried to dictate how girls should behave.
This was probably why in later life, Devaki often enjoyed being the only, or one of the few, women in a room of authoritative intellectual men, holding her own in conversation with them.
“And to be a free woman, with all its risks and costs, has meaning not just for my public life as a writer, scholar and activist, but my private life of love, friendship, marriage and family,” she notes.
Her father was a cabinet minister in Mysore State. Later, he was recommended to be the prime minister of the State of Gwalior, and also became a member of independent India’s Constituent Assembly. Devaki’s mother was a partner to her father in both his public and personal life, which was unusual in that era.
While her father was modern and liberal in his thinking, he was restricted somewhat by the orthodoxy of his Brahmin family and community. Even though she adored him, Devaki defied him on the question of marriage, refusing to marry a suitable boy that her parents had chosen for her when she was 18.
As a young woman, Devaki became interested in Gandhian ways and was committed to the anti-colonial cause. While living in London, she went hitchhiking around Europe, lived in a boarding house and worked as a dishwasher to earn money while studying. The deep association with labour and anti-colonialism at Oxford’s Ruskin College left in her an awareness about workers and trade unionism as well as imperialism and global politics.
Devaki candidly recounts the several romantic encounters that she experienced in her twenties –with David Hoggett, Vojin Dmitrivitch, Foy Nissen and of course, her future husband Lakshmi Jain.
It was while working as a 23-year-old research assistant at the Indian Cooperative Union in Delhi that she met and fell in love with her boss. Lakshmi Chand Jain, then 32, was a Gandhian social activist and was engaged to someone else at the time. After several years of romancing, Devaki had a secret inter-caste marriage with Lakshmi when she was 33.
Lakshmi had been a significant leader of the freedom movement in Delhi. After marriage, Devaki and Lakshmi were seen as intellectuals and political equals, rather than a conventional husband and wife pair.
The book also has a section called ‘Touch’, in which Devaki reveals her physical relationships and an incident from her adolescence when she was sexually assaulted by a family member. She also relates an unpleasant #MeToo event that she underwent with an eminent Swedish economist while working as a research assistant in Oxford.
The humiliating incident destroyed her self-worth and confidence during a time when there wasn’t much outside support or retribution. “Freedom and self-reliance come with risk, and the life of a free woman cannot be insulated from hurt,” she deliberates.
Thereafter, she went to St Anne’s, a women’s institution run by empathetic women with liberal attitudes. Her three women tutors were supremely intellectual, including the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who went onto become her close friend.
Back in India, Devaki began teaching economics at Delhi University’s Miranda College, which in those days had some socially active women lecturers such as Roma Mitra, Kamla Achayya, Kanti Shastri and Krishna Essaul. She also remembers fondly some of her students such as the talented and charismatic Brinda Karat.
In the late 1960s, she wrote an article on the subject of the Indian woman in which she called for the celebration of more rebellious women who stood up for themselves and didn’t define themselves in relation to men: such as Amrapali, a cultured and worldly courtesan; Gargi, an ancient philosopher; and Avaiyar, a Tamil poet and scholar, among others. This led her to write a book profiling the women of India.
She also did a lot of research on how women across the country were routinely discriminated against, abused, harassed and exploited – sexually and otherwise – at work. It brought to light the paradox of a culture that venerated its goddesses but killed its baby girls.
Over a span of half a century, Devaki had the unique privilege of travelling to 94 countries. Towards the end of the book, she fondly remembers the time she and her husband spent in South Africa, where he was posted.
Devaki, now 87, has written life story in a clear, luminous voice, making it highly readable. As she narrates the various aspects of her life, it makes the reader feel almost like Devaki is talking to them personally. With a life as varied and inspiring, it takes a woman as independent and courageous as Devaki to reveal all with élan.