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Suitable girl to judge

She's more than just novelist Vikram Seth's mother.This is an inspiring memoir from India's first woman High Court Chief Justice.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2003 12:13 IST
Aditya Sinha
Aditya Sinha

On Balance
An Autobiography
Leila Seth

Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 495

My 11-year-old is forever hunting through my bookcases for a suitable read to satisfy her voracious appetite. The stuff I have, however, is either too esoteric or too boring or too incomprehensibly adult. Going through Justice Leila Seth’s engrossing, inspiring and lucidly written autobiography I was convinced this was the book I’d suggest right away to my daughter.

Seth, of course, is the first woman to be Chief Justice (of Himachal Pradesh) in India. And her appointment wasn’t just tokenism (unlike that of the first woman justice on the Supreme Court Fatima Beevi, as Seth claims). The evidence of her suitability is her busy post-retirement life, which included just not a term on the Law Commission (and the offer of a second) but also an appointment to head a Commission of Inquiry into the death in jail of Rajan Pillai.

But since judges are necessarily a low-profile lot, Seth is probably better known to most of us as Vikram Seth’s mother. Vikram, of course, is the celebrated author of The Golden Gate (a novel entirely in verse) and A Suitable Boy. How lucky Justice Seth is, for memoirs by people who spend five decades doing nothing but the driest type of writing (especially if the writer is Indian) are usually a painful chore to plod through. Not Justice’s Seth’s, though.

And if it’s because Vikram had anything to do with the creative process, then good for them both, as it is the reader who is the richer.

For Justice Seth’s story continually reminds you of Vikram’s Tolstoyan effort in Boy. Not just in its crisp prose (less easy to compose than to read), but also in the comprehensive examination of the universe of a life, with its deeply touching inflections. Plato, who said “Ho anexetastos bios ou biotos anthropoi”, would have been pleased.

It was a life that was especially tough on Leila’s mother, Chanda, especially after the passing away of her husband Raj Behari, when Leila was only 12 years old. One of the moving moments in this book involves a letter, written 50 years after Raj Behari’s death, by Leila’s brother Michi bhai, who was at his father’s death-bed. The struggle for these UP-wallas settled in Calcutta forged in Leila the determination to do her best, but never does the memoir lapse into self-pity.


Justice Sachar and I... had occasion to deal with a murder case where the young accused was sentenced to life imprisonment... we were of the view that the evidence was not sufficient to
convict him, and accordingly set aside his conviction and sentence... (his mother) was so relieved she... openly blessed us, wishing we remained ever united as a couple! 

                           page 277

We read fascinating and anecdotal accounts of Leila’s education; her marriage to “Premo”; her topping the Bar in London soon after giving birth to second son Shantum; her years as only the second woman lawyer at the Patna High Court, and the battle to gain credibility as a barrister since clients felt no one would take a woman seriously; her years in Calcutta and Delhi, and her appointment to the Delhi High Court as a judge; and her arrival as a High Court Chief Justice.

In between we meet a “rude and sulky” Vikram who, as a small but articulate boy, complains about the lack of time she gives him; Premo’s harrassment by the CBI; and the most poignant chapter of all on her fourth child, Ira. Leila and Premo conceived Ira to give to her brother Sashi and his wife Usha, whose three children died in infancy. Tragically, even Ira passed away at the age of 16, and the unmelodramatic writing only adds to the power of this chapter.

There are a few chapters towards the end which are dull: her shock at the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and her inquiry into Rajan Pillai’s death. But these are more than made up for by the interspersing of Vikram’s poetry, written for on occasions like sister Aradhana’s wedding, or Leila’s marriage anniversary.

I was thinking On Balance was just right for my daughter till, near the end, I got to Justice Seth’s brief discussion of Vikram’s sexual orientation. I hesitated for just a moment. Some may feel such a topic is not proper for their children, but I feel that the inspiration and the story are too good to deny it to mine.

First Published: Dec 26, 2003 11:58 IST