Brass Notebook – A simple Storytelling
Initially, my idea was to get hold of a book that talks in the context of rural India - to understand the narrative structure as well as the core reality.
Picking the Brass Notebook, the book’s cover alone had a lot of explaining to do. But the book took me elsewhere, obviously. Devaki Jain had a whole bigger story to tell. She is a renounced feminist, economist and academician and for not knowing that in prior, I take no pride.
The first few chapters talk about the time before her - the growing up of her father and mother. The conventional background of a Brahmin family and the social stoicism attached to it - we all are familiar with this time and again - hence this could seem a bit dry. She is trying to address not just the Indian readers - it’s for anyone reading to understand how the system was in India during her past, as well as her parents.
I was not a fan of her narrative structure either, one couldn’t call it gripping. But there was no pressure, she was simply telling her story and what’s wrong in it being simple?
She mentions about the influence of a progressive father in her childhood who treated all his children equally. Her father, Mandayam Ananthampillai Sreenivasan used to be the Diwan of Gwalior then. His close life with the Palace, meeting with M S Subbulakshmi (in her teens), his conversation with Mahatma Gandhi and outright clash against the RSS workers is all described in detail on his memoir, “Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me”.
I was awestruck many times during the course of the book, for the people Devaki had come in close contact with, during her work. It’s almost as if, every renowned person whom we knew to be alive during her time, came into her life in full circle. The way she met Amartya Sen, K N Raj, Jagdish Bhagwati, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, M S Subbulakshmi, Ester Boserup and so many more. It was beautiful to read how she described her time in Delhi, “On any given evening, the best scholars, intellectuals, journalists and writers of the age could be found there, discussing books and the current political scenario”.
Devaki is someone who came forward, and just kept coming forward. Studying in Oxford, publishing papers, working in Indian Cooperative Union as a research assistant, meeting Amartya Sen, being a part of Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement, teaching in Miranda House, and what not. During her time in Ruskin College, she became aware about two things. 1. Workers and trade unionism 2. Imperialism and global politics. The education and exposure abroad moulded her in a way that would prove her to be resilient and open to challenges. Moreover, teaching in Miranda House, years later, she brought those Oxford lessons into practice. She quotes, “Sometimes the most we can do is to learn not to be broken by our experiences, to rebuild our lives with what materials are on hand, bit by bit, slowly and patiently”.
As years went by, she became more and more involved with women-centric issues and women organizations and turned into an active feminist. She was the first general coordinator for DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era). She was awarded the Padma Bhushan for her contribution to social justice and the empowerment of women.
Despite the hurdles life put her through, she found her way in and way out. To this day, she is still working and engaging in the public sphere. So long story cut short, she inspired me.