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While Reading Late Justice Leila Seth’s Autobiography, I Could Feel Her Presence Around Me

As a student of political science, I bought “On Balance: An Autobiography” by Leila Seth out of curiosity about the Indian judiciary. I was fascinated by late Justice Leila Seth, the first woman Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, mother to three wonderfully accomplished children renowned author Vikram Seth, Buddhist teacher Shantum Seth and artist and filmmaker Aradhana Seth.

A year ago, I read an article published in 2014, where Justice Leila Seth publicly condemned Section 377 and talked about coming to terms with her eldest son Vikram’s homosexuality. That’s when I decided that I wanted to know more about her journey. I was absolutely certain that there was more to this woman.

Justice Seth started writing her autobiography when she met with an accident and ended up with multiple fractures. She dedicates the book to her husband Premo and her granddaughters Nandini and Anamika. The first chapter, titled ‘Mother Tongue’, starts with her birth and the happiness in the family. She talks about how progressive her parents were and welcomed her into this world in the early 1900s. This chapter is a truly a reader’s delight. She writes about how her childhood days were the happiest when spent with her parents. She talks about her life in boarding school and shares the letters written to her parents and subsequently the tragic death of her father while she was still in school. His death had adverse consequences on their lifestyle and subsequently, her mother made sure she raised her daughter and two sons with strong values to make them independent.

While reading about her childhood, it seemed to me that she wasn’t very focused or had a clear vision for her herself. She writes about enjoying learning, her love for literature and getting married to her husband Premo.

Justice Seth has written extensively about her husband Premo and the reader can see the significant role her husband played in her life. She writes about him being an orphan and how extraordinarily hardworking he was. As the book progresses, it is interesting to know that she appeared for the Bar Council Exam while she was in the UK with her husband for a period of three years and won a gold medal for securing the first place.

She then talks about coming back to India and the challenges she faced as a woman and the discrimination that she had to face for years as a lawyer with a no-nonsense attitude. She writes about working harder and constantly trying to strike a balance between her professional life and her role as a mother and a wife, striving to be successful in each role she played. Her dedication is remarkable. She writes about instilling values in her children and giving them space to make their choices. She writes about her assignments as a lawyer and as the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court followed by being the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court and her years and post-retirement.

I was enamoured with her comfort with her husband’s transfers and one can understand how change has been an essential part of her growth. While reading Justice Leila Seth’s autobiography, I could feel her presence around me, as if she was sitting next to me and narrating her life. I always had mixed feelings of happiness, grief, and pride while reading her journey. To my mind, this autobiography is not only about Leila Seth but about her and her husband, it is a journey of two progressive people who stood with each other when tested by adversities, who spent most of their income on the education of their children, who were ambitious, but also with strong values.

No wonder she dedicated the book to her husband Premo. From what I understand, she went with the flow all her life with sincerity and complete dedication in all the roles she played. What I admire the most is not only her ability to strike a balance but also to be thoughtful and to have a clear sense of self.

This is a story of the first woman Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, yet a story of a woman who, like many middle-class women, thought of about her work, her husband, her family. It is about how she would make ends meet, how she tried to give the best education to her children, how she fulfilled expectations at her workplace as a first woman. She definitely had to work hard to prove herself and that reflected in her thoughtful judgements.

Reading this autobiography has been a one-week journey I will cherish. This is one of those books that makes you tearful and overwhelmed and I have only grown to respect strength above power. As a 19-year-old, I developed an instant connection with Justice Leila Seth. She gives me the inspiration to lead a life with integrity and dignity and definitely never take my freedom for granted.

Concluding this review with my favourite excerpt from this book in her own immortal words that had a profound influence on me:

“But then I force myself to remember that a country is great or a world is livable not because it has a few great people but a large number of good people doing their own work diligently and well and in the spirit of service. To aspire to be good to the best of one’s ability is, if not heroic, at least honourable. Justice Felix Frankfurter said: ‘No office in the land is more important than being a good citizen.’ (I tell myself this as I sit through certain committee meetings.) It is enough if the friendly postman delivers the mail promptly, the policeman is fair and impartial, and the politician acts honestly. As Romola Lahiry wrote in my autograph book when I was sixteen:

Small service is true service while it lasts.
Of Friends, however humble, scorn not one,
The daisy by the shadow that it casts,
Shelters the lingering dew-drop from the sun.”

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