The Story of an Unwelcome Advance by a Globally Renowned Economist at Oxford

Devaki Jain's memoirs recount an act of sexual assault by a reputed economist when she was young, which affected her both academically and personally.

Introduction by Pratik Kanjilal

The economist Devaki Jain’s memoir The Brass Notebook is being released on Saturday. The title is inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Jain had met Lessing in 1958, while she was writing the novel which made her famous, and she had offered to help her publish her own story. Sixty years later, that story is finally out ― its contents had got in the way, Jain explains wryly.

The same year, in 1958, the 25-year-old Jain, living on a shoe-string in England, was interviewed at the home of the diplomat Alva Myrdal (later, Nobel Peace laureate), and selected as the Asian research assistant to “an eminent Swedish economist” to write political backgrounders on the Asian nations for a three-volume project. This epic in development economics has been read by generations of academics, policy-makers and thinkers.

But Jain was unceremoniously ejected from the project very early after spurning the advances of the economist. The incident left her marooned in the UK without means of support, harmed her academically and led her to question perceptions of her own worth. This excerpt, which does not name the perpetrator, is taken from the section titled ‘Touch’.


‘Touch’: Excerpt from Devaki Jain’s The Brass Notebook

I had one unwelcome experience in Oxford in 1958 when I worked as a research assistant for an eminent Swedish economist. He was in Oxford, courtesy Balliol College, to work on his magnum opus, a three-volume work on development. He had senior colleagues to assist him and was looking for a junior research assistant from Asia.

I was twenty-five. I had grown up in south India, and lived in Bangalore. I had graduated from a women’s college in Bangalore, with special papers in mathematics and economics, and was awarded three gold medals by the University of Mysore for topping the results in maths and in general totals. Later, in 1955, I had studied at Ruskin College in Oxford and got a diploma in the social Sciences.

Another qualification which seemed relevant to his work was that earlier, in 1958, after attending the Harvard Summer Seminar with a grant from the Asia Foundation, I had travelled to almost every country in Asia, starting from Hawaii, to Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Myanmar (erstwhile Burma).

The professor had mentioned to some of his friends in the subcontinent his interest in recruiting a young person from Asia to add to his assistance for writing this major book on the region and its economic prospects. One of these contacts knew me and suggested that I apply. I promptly applied, and was invited for an interview at the residence of the Swedish ambassador, Alva Myrdal’s residence. I was thrilled when I was selected.

I travelled to Oxford to join the team. My job was to research, prepare notes and write a rough draft for the chapters on the political situation of the countries, a section called ‘Political Background’, which was to serve as a background for the other chapters focused on the economy. I found accommodation, a room in a boarding house set up by the same Russian orthodox group, whom I had known when I was at Ruskin College.

The professor would often host dinners for his team as well as some of his colleagues from the university, in the best restaurants in Oxford. One such evening, after a big dinner at a restaurant at Windsor Castle, an hour or more away from the city of Oxford, the professor offered to drop me at my lodgings. I accepted his offer without a qualm, since I had no indication that he was a predator. I sat in the seat next to him while he drove.

We were speeding along the main road, when he laughed and dug the fingers of his left hand into my crotch. I used to wear a sari in those days so it was not difficult for him to plunge his fingers between my thighs in one quick move. Stunned, I shouted, ‘What are you doing? Take your fingers out.’ His response was to laugh and say sardonically, ‘You could not be a virgin, what are you trying to tell me?’

He kept pushing his fingers in, dragging me towards him with that left hand, and I was frightened to death. But I found the courage to put my hand on the door handle and say: ‘I am going to open the door and jump out. Of course I will die but you will be prosecuted and go to jail.’ As he heard the click of the door, he removed his hand. He abused me, alleging that I was pretending to be a virgin, that I must surely have had sex by now, and so what was this fuss all about. Then he drove me back to my lodgings and went his way home.

The trauma deepened the next day when I went to work. He was in his room, surrounded by our colleagues. Seeing me walk in, he started to laugh and said: ‘This woman is an uncut diamond. She is not educated enough to work with me.’ He then served notice on me, saying I was inadequate for the job and my salary would stop from that day.

There I was, in a foreign country, without the support of family, subject to the vengeful wrath of a sexual predator. I had no confidante to whom I could go for counsel, and knew of no institutional mechanism to seek redressal. No one spoke openly of these things, though it was obvious enough that most people knew what went on and sustained the toxic climate by their omissions even more than by active collusion. It was the late 1950s and this was just how things were.

It was a crushing blow, and it was hard not to let myself think that he was right: maybe, despite being top of my year in mathematics in Mysore, despite my diploma from Ruskin College, maybe I was, as my employer maliciously insinuated, not all that intelligent. I was a young woman and my intellectual self-confidence was, at the best of times, fragile; survivors of assault, I have since learnt, are often wracked by feelings of guilt and inadequacy, prone to self-blame for advances they did nothing to provoke. This intellectual humiliation was bad enough, but it got worse: I was told that my employer was withdrawing from his obligation to pay my return fare to India.

During the few months that I had worked with the professor, I had struck up a friendship with some others of his team. Apart from Ester and Mogens Boserup, the Danish academics, especially skilled in statistics, there was Paul Streeton, a brilliant scholar who was a Fellow of Balliol College.

Isolated and without resources, I went to Paul, who advised me to reach out to St Anne’s, at that time known as the most progressive college, interested in wider issues, and ask to be admitted to their philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) course. I approached St Anne’s to see if they would admit me for an Oxford degree. They did.

St. Anne’s College in Oxford. Photo: ox.ac.uk

But the real blow came three years later when I sat for the final exam for the degree. I could not write answers. I found myself go blank. The assault and rejection by the professor had destroyed my self-worth. With great difficulty, the compassionate dons of Oxford allowed me to pass and get my degree, but it was not a good outcome. My teachers could not understand what had happened to a student they considered one of the best and expected to get what in Oxford is called a congratulatory first.

I realized that my self-confidence had been destroyed. My intellectual self had been affected by that traumatic dismissal. I had come to Oxford glowing with pride that I had been selected out of a whole number of nominees from South Asia. Later, I began to feel that I was not selected for my intellect but for my body.

Looking back, I can see the risks involved in feeling free. Currently the #MeToo movement reveals the risks that women take when working for men but the atmosphere is one where there can be retribution. But in those times, there was no such ‘outside’ support.

Excerpted with permission from The Brass Notebook: A Memoir, by Devaki Jain, Speaking Tiger Books.