Book Box: A trailblazing economist's memoir who helped build today's India - Hindustan Times

Book Box: A trailblazing economist's memoir who helped build today's India

Aug 19, 2023 10:56 AM IST

Devaki Jain's audacious life defied conventions, forged global connections, and redefined India's narrative

Dear Reader,

The Brass Notebook PREMIUM
The Brass Notebook

I am at dinner. The lady sitting next to me, fair and slender, with a boy cut and spectacles, is an academic. She has flown thousands of miles to be here in New Delhi.

What brings you here, I ask.

"I’m researching Indian feminists who have been part of transnational networks. Like Devaki Jain" she says.

I sit up. The name rings many bells. My friend Natasha has been talking about Devaki Jain’s memoir, The Brass Notebook for weeks now. I take this conversation as a sign.

The next day I go in search of the book, finding it at the second bookstore I visit, the huge Bahrisons Bookstore at Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj.

From the start, I am riveted.

Amartya Sen writes the introduction -- the two have been friends for years; they both taught at Delhi University. Devaki would walk across from Miranda House to the coffee shop at Delhi School of Economics, where Amartya Sen and other teachers and students were gathered around, discussing ideas and politics.

"I greatly enjoyed being the only, or one of the few, women in a room of authoritative intellectual men, holding my own in conversation with them. I am not proud of the way in which I drew this distinction, and the fact that I saw things this way shows just how far off I still was from being any kind of feminist," she writes of those days.

Reading the book, I understand why Devaki has drawn the professor I met at dinner halfway across the world to Delhi. She is fearless, defying her family to marry an unsuitable man, talking candidly about her sex life, and connecting with writers, economists and feminists all over the world -- from Gloria Steinem to Nelson Mandela. Devaki walks with Vinoba Bhave in rural Maharashtra and also with Iris Murdoch through the Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi.

She meets Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing.

"My conversation with Lessing lasted for hours, after which she said to me, ‘You must write your story now. Send it to me, I can help you.’"

Sixty years later Devaki writes this book, titling it in tribute to The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, explaining why she has chosen a brass notebook over a golden notebook. Her story impels me to get Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which I loved, but more about that book later.

The Brass Notebook and The Golden Notebook
The Brass Notebook and The Golden Notebook

Back to Devaki, who says, "I was never an influential academic economist... Sometimes I regret this. If my life had gone differently, if there had been more supportive institutions to allow me to balance my family commitments with the demands of an academic career, perhaps I too, could have published my work in the most elite journals".

Yet she hopes her contribution is as valuable -- as she crisscrosses the country looking at women, directing her observations to the Indian government, to the United Nations, making a case for changing policy. In that sense she is so amazingly ahead of her times, interrogating the very basis of statistics like Gross Domestic Product. At the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, she asks -- is there a thing like food security at the level of a household? Devaki saw first-hand from her travels, that in the same household, women were starved in favour of male family members; food security must be seen and measured in terms of individuals within a household, rather than the household, she said.

Reading The Brass Notebook makes me feel energised and inspired, it feels like a much needed antidote to the prevailing pessimism on the state of the country, that seems to surround me.

I Google the professor I met at dinner, and find her on her university website. I email her wishing her all the best in her research and thanking her for pointing me to Devaki Jain. The professor tells me she is happy she came to Delhi -- she visited Miranda House where the economist taught, and she is going to meet Devaki Jain herself in her Jor Bagh flat.

And then, I text my friend Natasha to say thank you. We agree that this is a great read for the book club we are both members of.

"The Brass Notebook and maybe a few related books -- let’s also read Breaking Out by Padma Desai and Breaking Through by Isher Judge Ahluwalia", Natasha says.

These are economists who helped build India, and it feels like the perfect tribute to read their books this Independence Day month. How has your reading this week been? Do write in.

That’s all for today. Next week I investigate the literary algorithm, diving into how it is reshaping publishing and storytelling, and examining what we can do to profit from its possibilities and protect ourselves from its perils.

Until then, Happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

The views expressed are personal

Catch every big hit, every wicket with Crickit, a one stop destination for Live Scores, Match Stats, Infographics & much more. Explore now!

See more

Get Current Updates on India News, Elections 2024, Lok sabha election 2024 voting live , Karnataka election 2024 live in Bengaluru , Election 2024 Date along with Latest News and Top Headlines from India and around the world.

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, July 18, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On