Justice Leila Seth was the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court, the first woman to become the Chief Justice of a high court in India and the first woman to top the Bar examinations in London. Voted as one of "Delhi's Ten Most Beautiful Women" according to a city magazine, she is an inspiration and a role model to Indian women of all generations.
Her autobiography On Balance is dedicated to her husband and her two-year-old granddaughter Nandini. Notwithstanding her own formidable achievements and this excellent literary effort, Leila Seth is also the mother of acclaimed author Vikram Seth whose A Suitable Boy, is one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language.
Leila Seth shrugs, "I was a stenographer, really." It was only while her husband was posted abroad that she picked out law as, "I hardly needed to attend lectures." Leila Seth opted to take the law course in London only because the institute she went to was not strict about attendance. But soon she not only went on to top the bar examination but also became the first Indian woman to do so. For a career that began uncertainly, Leila Seth has accomplished much more than a few firsts to her credit.
Leila Seth broke a few shackles not only as a career woman competing in a profession traditionally considered a male dominated profession , she held her own and refused to be typecast by not fighting only women's cases. Instead, she competed with her male colleagues and fought all kinds of cases right from criminal ones to those dealing with tax matters, constitutional law and litigation. Seth was always particular about holding an even balance between men and women. She says, "When I started practising, I wanted to prove myself as a mainstream lawyer, not follow the stereotype of a woman lawyer. I took up company, tax, constitutional, civil and criminal matters." But she laments, "I think women always have to be equal plus before they can get anything. Even now, out of 600 judges, there are only 10 female judges." The book also gives a very interesting account of the legal profession. It not only provides insights into the prevalent gender bias but also talks about the painfully slow-paced Indian courts, increasing corruption in judiciary, and the rampant favouritism in certain spheres. Justice Seth sat upon enquiry commissions which examined the effects of the serial Shaktimaan on children, as well as the enquiry into the death of Rajan Pillai in police custody. She served on the 15th Law Commission of India till 2000 and was responsible for the amendments to the Hindu Succession Act which gave equal rights to daughters in joint family property. She was often a sole woman judge among a gaggle of male judges.
She seamlessly intertwines her personal life with her professional life. Juggling with the demands of a challenging professional life intertwined with the demands and pressures of bringing up three children, running a home, being a mother and a wife and a socially active person, she eminently emerges as a time manager and a very practical soul. She remains at heart an unashamedly feminine person who likes to dress well, wear glass bangles and put flowers in her hair.
Leila Seth takes us into her world where her work is her one hand and her family the other hand. She tells us in a simple and straightforward way how she worked and at the same time gave time to her family and this balancing act was not that easy, there was never any question for giving up one for another. Balancing between career and family has been tough. "In relationships, the most important thing is to give people space. Love is finding a person who helps you become the best person you can be." For this she gives full credit to her supportive and loving husband, Prem whom she affectionately calls Premo, who said, "How can I ask you to cut off one hand?" Though she was never asked or expected to make a choice she candidly admits, "As I established my legal practice, there were times when I had to choose between giving priority to work obligations or to family commitments. I juxtaposed, manoeuvred and adjusted, but the flow of neither stream ever stopped."
The hallmark of any autobiography is the author's honesty and integrity. She had no qualms in discussing a variety of tricky and sensitive issues like corruption in the Judiciary, a lack of transparency in the appointment of judges, various malpractices, and her own son's personal problems. One more example of the author's honesty manifests itself in her revelations of Vikram's bisexual orientation and Shantum's earlier experimentation with marijuana. "I sent manuscripts of the book to all my three children. And they did not object to what I had written," she says. Neither Vikram, who is an eminent writer nor Shantum, her second son who is a peace activist and a Buddhist teacher, or her art director daughter Aradhana objected to her writing about their lives liberally. And as far as she and her husband Premo were concerned, she claims she held nothing back. "If I was younger I might be bothered but at 73 it doesn't matter anymore and as for Premo he was aware of the word to word progress of the autobiography ever since it was begun over two years ago and encouraged me to write all," she says.
The book is peppered with many interesting vignettes. There is the funny but understandable concern of a mother whose colleagues at the Delhi High Court would badger her about her children "not settling down" and the hilarious dismissal of Vikram Seth by their family driver during his pre - A Suitable Boy days as someone who was "reading and writing and sleeping and eating and living off his parents. There have been bad times and good, but on balance it's been a good life. I have no regrets, though I was unhappy when I didn't make it to the Supreme Court, or when my fourth child died," she says, referring to beautiful Ira, who leapt from a balcony in Mumbai at the age of 16. She speaks of her father's early death, their downward spiral from luxury to homelessness. She is cheerful about the inherent irony of being a judge whose peacenik son, Shantum, went to jail in Norwich. But the unwarranted CBI enquiry into her husband's role in machine purchases in the public sector hangs heavy on her. "It was as if the sky had fallen on us. For us, reputation meant everything."
There is an easy elegance here, a subtle sense of humour, a fluid readability, and a lucid, completely unaffected, eloquence of one who is at ease with herself. She uses the English language as a tool to communicate rather than dazzle or astonish the reader. Her writing has the power to engulf the reader completely. The heart wrenching honesty with which the book is written makes the narrative very transparent and the generous sharing of intimate details make you feel as if you are a part of Leila's story and more importantly makes you care about her world. One feels very much involved and drawn into her world, as a reader getting a rare glimpse into her life but not passively, rather as an active participant emoting and connecting, such is power of the story she narrates.