When a pioneer of the women’s movement in India opens up the window box of her memories, one can expect some startling revelations and some valuable historical perspectives. Devaki Jain delivers on both counts, making this candid and charming book an inspiration for its readers. Called The Brass Notebook, the immediate throwback is to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), a mirror to the fragmented narratives that often comprise the inner life of women. Devaki brings her local version of pittalai or brass in Tamil, the language of her childhood. A vivacious eighty-seven years of age now, Devaki Jain has no hesitation in writing about her complex relations with her father, her abiding romance with her husband Lakshmi Jain, a ‘northerner’ she married against her father’s wishes, her occasional dalliance in youth, her early conviction that women ought to be ‘free’, and her accomplishments as a feminist economist in a male dominated sphere. The book is structured creatively, flowing through various experiences with ease, amply demonstrating that famous feminist slogan, ‘The personal is the political.’
It was my privilege to talk to Devaki Jain about her memoirs at a session of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I asked her about the term ‘before midnight’s children’ (p. 45) that she uses for people who carry remembrances of India’s swadeshi struggles, but who were too young to join the satyagraha. She offered a nostalgic account of two residents of the Sevagram Ashram who anchored her early political thinking. Devaki recalls, ‘They spoke about the simplicity and identification with the poor. They represented the spirit, the yearning and the effort to usher in Gandhi’s idea of a “second freedom”—freedom from deprivation through sharing with the poor’ (p. 51).
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