Seminar magazine Posts

“The Brass Notebook” by Devaki Jain

In the Feb 2021 of the Seminar Magazine ( #738, ROAD TO JUSTICE: a symposium on thinking through the rule of law), I have reviewed noted feminist economist Devaki Jain’s memoir, The Brass Notebook. Here is the original url. I am also C&P the text below.


The Brass Notebook ( Speaking Tiger Books) is renowned feminist economist Devaki Jain’s memoir. Her life has been blessed with rich experiences given the freedom her father allowed her, which was unusual for the time. She had been fortunate that her Tamil Brahmin father did not impose the same restrictions and rituals upon her as he did on her elder sisters when it came to education, marriage, travel among others. Astonishingly she was even permitted by her father to stay alone in London after he had taken her there on an official trip as a companion.

Her trip was eventful; she managed to spend a few days with the then High Commissioner of India, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit. Later, Devaki attended a two-week seminar organized by the Quakers in Saarbrucken, Germany. There she met a Dane who persuaded her to accompany him. His plan was to hitchhike to England after taking a short detour to Copenhagen and then Sweden. Devaki agreed. Later she did an overland trip from England to India with another friend. She does remark in amazed wonder that ‘Looking back, it is surprising how little my father resisted.’ At this time, charmed by the idea of attending Oxford University, even though the admission process was over, she was admitted to Ruskin College, a relatively ‘new’ college that catered mostly to the working class and offered subjects like economics and industrial relations.

Years later when she met the principal H.D. Hughes and asked him why he had let her in, his reply was ‘Pure amusement …at the sight of this evidently upper class Indian girl in her early twenties, asking desperately to be allowed to study alongside men and women in their thirties with more than ten years of hard manual labour behind them. How, he said, could he resist such a social experiment?’

Devaki’s adventurous spirit permitted her to challenge her boundaries constantly. She did this even by marrying out of her caste to the prominent Gandhian, L.C. Jain, a Jain from Rajasthan. It was this very feistiness that enabled her to very early on in her life begin to question inherited traditions of culture and knowledge. For instance, in one of her earliest publications, an essay, ‘The Social Image’, that she wrote for Seminar (‘The Indian Woman’, # 52, December 1963, pp 20-23), she states categorically that the social image of women is mostly a patriarchal construct that is enabled by their veneration of the panchkanyas – Sita, Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara and Mandadori. She argues that this imagery fails to accommodate many women who fall outside ‘this Sita orbit’. This neglect creates both environmental and internal pressures. For example, the woman who stays unmarried and follows a career is considered an aberration. Instead she sought for the celebration of more rebellious women in the ancient Hindu traditions, women who stood up for themselves, and didn’t define themselves in relation to men: Amrapali, a cultured and worldly courtesan; Gargi, an ancient philosopher; Avaiyar, a Tamil poet and scholar, among others.

Later she was fortunate to have her values endorsed while she was enrolled at St. Anne’s College for her PPE course. Her tutors, Iris Murdoch, Peter Ady, Jenifer Hart: three supremely intellectual women, took her seriously as a fellow thinker – a respectful intellectual engagement. ‘I was a woman among other women, and we were bound by ties of intellectual sympathy. I was being valued for my intelligence, hard work and achievement.’ A bond of sisterhood that she learned to value later as an economist and at the helm of Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST).

Devaki Jain is known for recognizing the value of a woman’s labour in real economic terms, whether towards the national economy or in the personal space. It was a slow and methodical process as she accrued experience as an economist, first by writing The Democratic Alternative at Minoo Masani’s invitation. Later as a lecturer in the Economics department, Miranda House, University of Delhi, she taught public finance. She would often walk across to the Delhi School of Economics to converse with eminent economists like Amartya Sen, K.N. Raj, Sukhamoy Chakraborty, and Jagdish Bhagwati to name a few. By 1972, she quit the university and the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) helped her set up a new field-based project on the unrecognized contribution of women to the economy. Later she was commissioned by Sheila Dhar, Director, Publications Division, to edit Indian Women, to coincide with the UN International Year of Women, 1975. Contributors included, among others, Andre Beteille, Veena Das, Ashok Rudra, Romila Thapar, and Qurratulain Hyder. Ester Boserup, working on women in African agriculture, demonstrated the significance of gender roles in social analysis. Ashish Bose, a demographer, presented for the first time the falling sex ratio in India. The ratio declined from 972 females per 1000 males (1901) to 930/1000 (1971), prompting Amartya Sen to coin the phrase ‘India’s missing women’. Women of many different kinds were described in ‘Indian Women’: nuns, teachers, nurses, students, matriarchs. Later the Government of India also set up a committee to report on the status of women in India entitled ‘Towards Equality’.

This project pushed her into exploring her hunch that ‘the official figures on women’s participation in work were seriously underestimating the facts on the ground; I also suspected that what lay behind this underestimation was a deep methodological flaw in the approach to measurement.’ Her proposal to Raj Krishna’s Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) brought together her two interests – growing fascination with women’s role in labour, and her specialization in statistics. Her findings that the measurements were all wrong and much of the time data on women’s economic contribution was not even being collected. She also discovered that the female work participation rates were in fact higher than participation rates for men amongst the landless in India, ‘landless’ being a proxy for extreme poverty. This challenged the long-held belief that the main breadwinner of a household was generally a man.

The string of accomplishments Devaki Jain garnered are endless. For instance, she was one of three women who was invited to participate in Julius Nyere’s twenty-eight member South Commission. It was constituted to give voice to the shared perspective of the South, drawn from the experience of Non-Aligned Movement countries, and not simply imported from northern models that may or may not be suited to the conditions of these societies. She has worked with various national and international agencies committed to a gendered understanding of economics. Her strong friendships with well known feminists like Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker, have only strengthened her perspective on women’s rights. In fact, it is the fundamental principle that she agrees with and so heartily endorses Walker’s view that there is no problem in being called a ‘feminist’ or a ‘womanist’, whatever it takes for women’s liberation to be recognized and for a woman to earn her freedom – that is all that matters.

In keeping with her strong characteristic of recognizing her self-worth and preserving her dignity, she documents the sexual harassment she faced from her maternal uncle and later by a well known Swedish economist at Balliol College, Oxford in 1958. She was interviewed for the job to be his junior research assistant from Asia to work on his magnum opus, a three-volume work on development. She had been interviewed at the home of the then Swedish Ambassador to the UK, Alvar Myrdal. Reflecting upon the incident in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Jain realizes that in 1958 she had no recourse to retribution as there is now for women who work for men and are sexually harassed. Different age, different rules. But why a doyen of feminism like her chooses not to reveal the name of the aggressor, when she doesn’t hide the specific familial relationship with her maternal uncle (who she also doesn’t name) is puzzling. At any rate, it was her choice to make and must be respected.

The title, The Brass Notebook, has been inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook where Devaki Jain uses ‘brass’ as for her it has warm associations with her childhood, but it is also ‘a hardier, homelier metal than gold. It represents not perfection or unity, but an honourable imperfection consistent with my own limits.’ This clearheaded understanding of what it means to be a woman, chart her own career and who values her labour were pathbreaking concepts then and to some extent are even now – nearly six decades later. The Brass Notebook is a snapshot of a life well lived by a pioneering feminist and an excellent role model for subsequent generations.

1 Feb 2021

“A Woven Life” by Jenny Housego

Memoirs, autobiographies and biographies are a great introduction to a life. They also share a period through personal stories making history come alive. Memoirs are mostly a great story told from one person’s perspective — “my story”. As Eric Idle says to John Cleese while discussing the latter’s memoir in a public conversation, “well it is very hard to write about yourself” but a memoir is also only a slice of history or what you choose to tell.

In textile historian, entrepreneur and collector Jenny Housego discusses her childhood in England, her marriage to journalist David Housego and her passion for textiles that was ignited during her stint at V&A, London. She developed a fascination for “Anatolian carpets of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries … [she wanted to show in her research] that the so-called early Egyptian carpets had actually been made in Anatolia and displayed many examples of early Christian and Byzantine art which seemed to me to bear close similarities to the designs on these carpets.” Her husband, David, was soon posted to Iran, Afghanistan and later India. She accompanied him and sometimes on the tours he undertook. Along the way her love for textiles deepened. On her travels she was able to collect exquisite samples. When she came to India she developed an interest in the paisley designs of Kashmiri shawls. It sparked a lifelong love for the handloom. Jenny Housego managed to convert her keen interest in Indian handlooms into a successful business. At first she set up a company with her then husband, David Housego, called Shades of India. Subsequently when her marriage fell apart she set up another one — Kashmir Loom. This time focussing specifically on her interest for handlooms from Kashmir.

A Woven Life has been co-authored by Maya Mirchandani as Jenny Housego’s left side is paralysed due to a stroke she suffered some years ago. It is a memoir that is easy to read. It has tiny illuminating details that only reinforce how good art combined with talent can survive through the ages. For example, Jenny Housego’s granduncle was the famous American painter, John Singer Sargent. In one of his portraits uses a Kashmiri paisley shawl woven in India. Jenny Housego spotted it in the painting while searching for antique shawls whose motifs she could incorporate in the Kashmir Loom design library. She decided to find out if the shawl still existed. Sure enough. It did. She sent the image to Warren Adelson, a friend
and well-known art dealer in New York who specialized in Sargent paintings. The shawl had been used as a regular prop in many of Sargent’s paintings but he had decided to gift it to one of his clients. Incredibly the shawl was now owned by a British peer, Lord Cholmondeley, who kept it at his stately home.

Presumably, Sargent must have painted an ancestor of the lord’s wife with the shawl wrapped around her and then must have given it to her. Warren wrote to him on my behalf and his Lordship kindly agreed to bring it to London for me to see. In the hallway of his Mayfair home on a cold, dark rainy day, the shawl was brought to me and placed on a table. The hallway was badly lit and no one offered to hold it up for me to photograph properly. I remember draping it over a side table as well as I could, then my flash failed. The wool was coarse, clearly woven from local sheep, not pashmina at all, but the shawl was exquisite in spite of the rough wool. It had been looked after well. Woven using the technique called ‘kani’ for which Kashmir is renowned, it had patterns on a large border and on either end of the shawl were big paisleys in shades of blue with accents of kashmir loom: stepping out of another’s shadow reds and pinks. Each paisley was made up of tiny leaves and flowers woven to form the shape. Above the main border was another row of much smaller paisleys woven the same way, but set at an angle, slanting to the right. The outer border at the very end of the paisleys wrapped around the entire shawl like a vine of tiny blue-green leaves. Bent over it in that dark hallway, I knew I had to try and recreate it. I didn’t know if it would work, but I was certain it would become Kashmir Loom’s signature item if it did.

Her life with David Housego had very interesting moments. For instance, they were living in Iran in the period before the revolution, so the shift in sentiments from the Shah to the Ayatollah were palpable. Then as a prominent foreign correspondent, David Housego, had access to many sensitive stories. For instance, David had written in the Economist, saying that the Iranians were building a naval base at Chabahar on the eastern side of the Gulf coast. Husband and wife journeyed to Chabahar where the Iranian government representatives denied the existence of such a base until a night watchman who had obviously not briefed by the officials confirmed that David’s report was correct. Another terrifying moment is Jenny Housego’s account of David and her younger son, Kim’s, abduction by militants in Kashmir. Kim was taken away from his parents in Srinagar and there was no trace of him for seventeen days. Given that David was a well-known British correspondent based in South Asia, he knew relevant people across the subcontinent. These included politicians, diplomats, journalists etc. As a result, according to Jenny’s memoir, David was able to keep the pressure on the militants since he had activated all the channels and would hold regular press conferences. David too mentions the abduction of Kim in an article he published in 2011. ( David Housego, “An Indian Journey“, Seminar, 2011.)

A Woven Life has two very distinct narratives embedded in it. One is Jenny Housego’s passion for textiles particulary Kashmiri weaves. The second is her life with David Housego. In fact it was David who inadvertantly set her off on this journey of textiles by encouraging her to apply for a job as a museum assistant at the Victoria and Albert Museum ( V&A) in London. She was apprenticed to Dr May Beattie, a leading scholar of her time in
Oriental rugs and carpets. It obviously ignited a passion that Laila Tyabji, Chairperson, Dastkar, recognised upon meeting Jenny Housego for the first time. She recalls it in her foreword to the book:

... we settled down to watch her slide presentation of the Punja durries’ documentation and out came the second side of Jenny! Behind the diffident, very British, understated, rather shy exterior was an insightful, academically trained mind; the scholarship coupled with a passionate excitement about her subject. …I still remember Jenny’s illuminating exposition of ‘interlocking circles’ and how so many motifs and designs are based on combinations of this. After that I saw interlocking circles everywhere – on Etruscan mosaics, Celtic stone carving, Mughal jaali lattice work, Kutchi ajrakh block prints, rococo wrought iron, Indonesian wax resist batiks.

Despite her marriage falling apart after thirty years, Jenny Housego is unable to recount incidents in her memoir without mentioning David regularly. She comes across as bitter while talking about his non-existent parental duties when their sons were toddlers. Having said that David was an integral part of her life and to a large extent seems to have given her the opportunities to pursue her interests in textiles. In the book trailer for A Woven Life there are lovely snapshots recorded from Jenny Housego’s life, many of them are of the Housegos as a happy family — a bit at variance from what the text portrays. Regretfully it does not have sufficient details about textile histories and Kashmiri handlooms. The book would have been richer by offering more detailed insight into these traditional forms of weaving. Nevertheless A Woven Life is a quick read.

PS I read an advance proof of the book, given the current lockdown due to the Covid19 healthcare crisis. Sadly, it did not have a single photograph. But I am assured by the marketing team that the print edition will have photographs accompanying the text.

4 May 2020

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