A Gandhian, a feminist economist, an international leader, a field researcher, a survivor..
Trained in Mathematics and Statistics at Mysore University (was a gold medalist) and later in labor economics at Oxford university as early as the 1950s, Devaki Jain is a star in the history of Indian feminist economics. I read her delightful memoir — “The Brass Notebook”, which incidentally motivated me to work on this blog series.
A number of things stood out to me about her beyond her immense contribution to evidence on unpaid labor and exploitation of women across industries in the India, backed by a lot of time spent on the field.
One of the funniest but also revealing quotes in the book actually comes from a woman she interviews, Fatima Bi, who exclaims “Ya Allah, Mard kyun banaya?” — I couldn’t stop laughing but dwelling on this claim of frustration for a while. Anyway, back to Devaki. Despite being born into an orthodox (albeit upper caste and privileged) family well before independence, she challenged several gender norms in her personal life — marrying substantially later than her sisters, travelling and hitchhiking extensively, not being shy of multiple romances, and the ultimate act of rebellion: inter-caste marriage which was necessary because she had met an intellectual match.
Devaki studied labor economics at none other than the Ruskin College at Oxford where students were older, and were working class and active members of trade unions unlike private school educated students at the other Oxford colleges who were more likely to study the “GREATs” as opposed to economics and industrial relations. At 25, she was one of two Indians selected for an international leadership program run by Henry Kissinger! Devaki and Gloria Steinem have been friends for very long, which only makes sense given they are both feminist icons. She was an active participant in the Bhoodan movement, and was very much a part of the Gandhian movement like her partner, Lakshmi Jain.
Another quotable quote from her memoir is when she tells her partner, that what she needs is a wife. She does not hold back in describing to a reader the inexplicable weight of a marriage and motherhood penalty on a woman’s career, which are difficult to shoulder even when one has a supportive partner.
In another part of the book, she writes, “I was never an influential economist”. But her memoir is an exemplar in how economists come in various shades — her work has mostly been field-based, and involved decades of direct engagement with policy, ranging from advocating the newly independent Global South’s interests across international institutions such as the United Nations, charting gender-inclusive economic policy within India, to field-research in every single Indian state and union territory.
Speaking of travel, since 1955, Devaki had been to 94 different countries. That is quite the feat for anyone, but exponentially more so for an Indian woman of her time. That said, Devaki had her fair share of exploitation by men in positions of power and has seen entitlement without consequences at it’s worst.
Fast forwarding toward the end of her chapter Rethinking Economics, she recounts the four of them — Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker, and herself — watching the first show of the dramatized version of The Colour Purple. As a woman, I have been inspired by all three of her companions on that evening, but to discover that I really didn’t need to look that far for that sort of inspiration was incredible. I would recommend “The Brass Notebook” to any Indian woman with ambition and a spirit of adventure — it hits different than reading Lean In and such because representation matters, and how!