Conversation with Devaki Jain, author of 'The Brass Notebook'

In conversation with Devaki Jain

Sometimes in the meanderings of life, we chance upon a personality who is so tall that irrespective of our age we inadvertently say, “that’s who I want to be when I grow up!”

The conversation held on the 9th of January 2021 was hosted by Col Gopal Karunakaran, CEO Shiv Nadar School, was organised by the parent Book Lovers Club. It was well attended by the parents and students from all three campuses and members from other book clubs in Gurgaon.

Ms Devaki Jain is such an inspiring personality, her journey through the past 9 decades is what we may have read of in books and seen in movies. Sheer grit and determination to go on have seen her through rough waters. She never allowed missed opportunities and moments that slipped by, to deter her, her basic philosophy of life to dream on, converted every push backwards to a jump forward. Her memoir, is a candid, no non-sense and “as it is” story of her life. A comfortable and carefree childhood to struggles as a young student abroad to putting forth her ideas globally is a testimony to her grace and ability to learn.

Devaki Akka, is a firm believer of the power of dreams, as ‘dream time is when we are most inspired’. Dreams create ideas and ideas lead to conquer nations! Ideas are the tools that one needs to conquer. Her conquests professionally are well documented all over the internet, what came through in this conversation was the grit and sparkle of the Devaki essence. This essence is the belief that we as a nation need to claim our heritage, without getting archaic or blind to the dogmatism over the years. This heritage of our culture as a people is our intellectual legacy, where India could teach the world ‘how to be modern’. The gift of the brain (intellect) is either given to us genetically or may be sought through training and learnings. It’s up to the individuals to garner this resource for progress and equality. Her thoughts, intellect and ethics were shaped by the Gandhian Philosophy, thinkers, intellects and leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay, Durgadevi Deshmukh, Swami Vivekanand, Vinoba Bhave, to name a few.  Akka is a fan of Julius Nyerere! And often quotes Fatema Mernissi.

Ms Jain introduced the term “feminization of poverty”, a disparity of incomes between the genders, wherein the women are at an increasing disadvantage. Her work with the UN over the years serving on various panels had established her a stalwart on the ails of issues of equity, democratic decentralization, people-centred development and women’s movements.

Her memoir, The Brass Notebook, is a must-read for the India of today to understand how the previous generations have worked to smoothen our paths.

Further, is the book review as written by one of the SNS Book Lovers Club member, Ms Deepa Dutta;

Padma Bhushan Devaki Jain’s memoir, The Brass Notebook, is my first read of the year. Thanks to my daughter’s school book club organising an author meet (virtual) with her yesterday, I read it through the working week just so that I wouldn’t feel lost at the meet…More so, since up until now, I had not read any of her works…


An octogenarian now, you might generally know that Devaki Jain is an acclaimed economist with a huge body of work in the field of women upliftment and empowerment. What you wouldn’t know is the very unconventional, full life she has led so far. Her memoir is a no-holds-barred account of her life, experiences, choices and decisions.


Born in 1933, here was a little girl from the usual orthodox Brahmin family who could mount elephants, ride horses, go on safaris at a very early age. She thwarted attempts of her family to marry her off when she turned eighteen, accompanied her father to London on his official trip when she was twenty-two, stayed back in a boarding house to further explore the city, and eventually took up a course on economics and industrial relations at Ruskin College in Oxford. Here onwards, the memoir opens up about the life Devaki led in the UK, staying at hostels, washing dishes at restaurants to pay for her expenses, hitchhiking in Europe, going on a road trip from Oxford to Delhi driving a Land Rover along the way, her boyfriends and her infatuations, her own sensuality and her brushes with physical intimacy, molestation at the hands of her recruiter. Upon her return to India, she narrates how she took up a teaching job at Delhi’s Miranda House; went on to firm up her work on economics, leading to feminist economics; hobnobbed with the think tanks, who’s who of India and the world; helped build socialist India, becoming a strong voice on land reforms and social movements, mobilising southern and erstwhile colonised countries to stand up to the west…


All these for a woman born in the 1930s! Many, many, many Indian (and elsewhere too) women can’t think of doing all these even today! I remain astonished, awed at how she broke every convention along her way. And most importantly, I gape at how she is so unapologetic, guilt-free about them all – be it leaving her kids in the care of her husband while attending conferences abroad, or even getting pregnant before marriage and going in for abortions.


We women, especially Indian women, bother too much about society, its norms, relationships, marriage, childcare. We spend a crazy portion of our life ‘balancing things’, working around our aspirations to ‘suit’ others. Lives of Devaki Jain and such other women should teach us, women, why we should be unafraid, unapologetic…disregard archaic customs….follow our dreams…