The Brass Notebook: The woman with wheels on her feet

Divya Sreedharan | Updated on November 06, 2020

World view: Work took Jain to 94 countries, where she interacted with Mandela and other leaders   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Devaki Jain’s memoir documents her quest for personal and intellectual freedom in a newly independent country

* A young Devaki Jain sets out boldly to explore new paths — both professional and personal

* Apart from her intellectual brilliance, what shines most strongly is the very real love she shared with Lakshmi Jain

‘Kaalile chakram’ (‘wheels on her feet’ in Tamil). That’s how exasperated family and relatives described Devaki Jain, the Padma Bhushan awardee noted for her work on feminist economics, social justice and women’s empowerment.

All her life Jain never could or would stay in one place or content herself with the limited choices available for women. Seeking freedom and fuelled by a fierce intellectual curiosity, she set out boldly to explore new paths — both professional and personal. It led her to a fulfilling, deeply rewarding life, one sustained and strengthened by the passionate bond she shared with her husband, the late Lakshmi Chand Jain — Gandhian, freedom fighter and Ramon Magsaysay awardee.

Jain’s desire to learn from and experience everything first-hand led her to participate in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement, walk alongside Jayaprakash Narayan during a famine (in 1974), and criss-cross every state and Union Territory in India. She pioneered insightful economic studies into the place of women in society and “inequalities based on gender”, as her friend and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen observes in his foreword to the book.

Her work took Jain to 94 countries, where she mingled with world leaders Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Julius Nyerere, worked with political thinkers such as Morocco’s Fatema Mernissi, struck friendships with the feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem, and authors Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing. Six decades after Lessing encouraged Jain to write her story, she got down to the task, taking a leaf out of the author’s pioneering novel The Golden Notebook. But the memoir of a woman and feminist economist in a nation that was coming into its own was not going to be another golden notebook. The metal that resonated with Jain’s life better was the “hardier, homelier” brass.

The Brass Notebook / Devaki Jain / Speaking Tiger / Non-fiction / ₹599


Privileged and public-minded

Devaki Jain nee Sreenivasan had a privileged childhood but not an insular approach to life. Rather, a hunger for more led to higher education in England and intoxicating “freedoms” — hitch-hiking across Europe, her first beer, first time in a bikini... so on. Back in newly independent India, that inquiring mind was fired with the hope and belief that other “freedoms” too were achievable — freedom from hunger, poverty and gender inequality. A public-spirited ethos that prompted her to focus on unequal wages for equal work and look at skewed sex ratios, “...the paradox of a culture that venerated its goddesses but killed its baby girls”. And highlight how unrepresented women were (and still are) in the economic/social policies of the time.

She first worked in Bombay, where she met the economic historian Dharma Kumar and her husband Lovraj Kumar. Later, her interest in Gandhian ideas and the cooperative movement took Jain to the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU), Delhi. The Kumars were in Delhi, too. So, Jain interacted with the leading intellectuals, thinkers, and writers of the age, in their drawing room. Her brother Sreedhar called this network of the Pandara Road and Chanakyapuri intellectuals the Panchampali group — Romesh and Raj Thapar from the journal Seminar; Amartya Sen and leading lights from Cambridge, and others. Jain wrote a path-breaking essay on celebrating rebellious women “who stood up for themselves and didn’t define themselves in relation to men”, in Seminar in the late 1960s.

Love, real and raw

Apart from Jain’s intellectual brilliance, including her stint in academia, what shines most strongly is the very real love she shared with Lakshmi Jain. He was her boss at the ICU. A Gandhian social activist, he appeared to her as Sir Galahad. But he belonged to another caste. Besides, he was engaged to be married; but undeterred, she declared her feelings, bedazzling him. What followed was a passionate outpouring of mutual desire and love. Though her family refused to consent, the lovers continued to meet. Disarmingly honest, she talks of making love with Lakshmi and how in 1965, a year before they were officially married, she had two abortions. “We just could not contain our passion,” she says simply. That honesty continues into her description of married life. After their two sons were born, she had a tumultuous time. The marriage became strained. Why were wives expected to always be working in the background, anticipating the needs of others, she wondered. Maybe she needed two husbands. But she could not, she decided, “see myself managing a sane sex life with two men.”

Jain’s deeply passionate nature is evident in her descriptions of the brief relationships she enjoyed before she met her husband. There was much kissing and pleasure, but no intercourse. However, she also learned that not every tactile experience was a good one. As a child she was molested by a close relative. As an adult, she had traumatic experiences with predators, one of whom was a professor. Later, through her work, she met tea plantation workers who spoke of being threatened with low wages if they refused sexual favours to supervisors/employers. Economic exploitation went hand in hand with sexual exploitation, Jain noted.

Jain’s slim memoir traverses different worlds — from a privileged life in British-ruled India to the headiness of freedom. Of believing in the vision of Gandhi and Nehru and then, seeing those ecstatic early days tempered by ground realities; but never losing faith that it was possible to build an equitable society, especially for women. Jain believed (and still does) that for this to happen there must be a more nuanced or ‘gendered’ thinking and inclusive terminology in framing public policy.

At 87, Jain has weathered highs and lows, joy and loss, but remains strong and true to herself — always wishing to be free and self-reliant.

Divya Sreedharan is a Bengaluru-based journalist

Published on November 06, 2020

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