Review: The Brass Notebook by Devaki Jain ♦
This story was originally published in India Today.
In her landmark 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing explored what it meant to be a ‘free woman’, while acknowledging the irony built in to the phrase. ‘Free women’, says the protagonist ‘wryly’ and with anger, ‘They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them.’
Economist and activist Devaki Jain acknowledges both the inspiration and the irony in her recent memoir, The Brass Notebook. During a meeting with Lessing in 1958, the future Nobel winner instructed her to ‘write your story now’. Decades later, Jain, now 87, chose brass as ‘the receptacle for my story’, ‘a hardier, homelier metal than gold. It represents not perfection or unity, but an honourable imperfection consistent with my own limits’.
As Jain describes her childhood in a well-off but sheltered Tamil-Brahmin household, her leap into the world of Oxford and eventually into newly independent India’s emerging intellectual class, she is vigilant about showing how freedom is fought for constantly, as a way of being despite the constraints of society, but also contingent on luck, opportunity and the social structures of privilege. Jain’s father’s connections, letters of introduction sent round the world, opportunities seized by being at the right place and time: these all point to a world with roomier prospects for advancement while taking nothing away from the exhilaration of reading about Jain’s year at Ruskin College (a working women and men’s institution at Oxford) or demeaning her pluck and hunger for adventure.
That Jain fought for every inch of her circumscribed independence is made clearer in the second half of the book, which fleshes out her sexual and intellectual history, only alluded to in the less analytical biography that comprises the book’s first half. These latter chapters show, through Jain’s experiences with sexual assault, or her work with poor women, how much work remains to be done to reveal the unwritten codes of oppression.
The division of the book isn’t formal, and the two strands could just as well have been integrated. The second portion, with Jain’s reflections on ‘touch’, ‘the academy’ and social hierarchies, provides ballast and context for the breezier first half. Of particular interest is Jain’s work in the international development sphere and with feminist economists. As a woman from the global south, her critical perspectives on institutions and methodologies inherited from former colonisers are invaluable.
The protagonist of The Golden Notebook wonders ‘if we lead what is known as free lives, that is, lives like men, why shouldn’t we use the same language?’ Jain subtly seems to argue that it is imperative to forge new ways of speaking and acting. She writes, ‘I am almost convinced that freedom, or emancipation from bonds, comes from fighting for freedom, which in itself is the affirmation of freedom.’ Jain’s title harkens back to the large utensils ubiquitous in the middle-class, south Indian homes of her childhood, but her memoirs also imbue the typically negative connotation of a woman’s brassiness with new brilliance.