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Leila Seth's autobiography On Balance reveals how she was truly a woman ahead of her times, yet expected to do all that society expects of a woman, no matter who.
Today, 20th October 2023 is the 93rd birth anniversary of Leila Seth, the amazing woman born in 1930 this day. She has famously broken the glass ceiling for women at the bar.
We are what we are because of the many women who opened doors and left them ajar for us. Leila Seth is one such woman. I knew she had been a practicing lawyer, the first female judge to be appointed to the Delhi High Court as a judge and the first woman to be the Chief Justice of a High Court. She was a significant voice in the legal changes after the horrific 2012 Delhi gang rape case.
I also knew her as a woman who stood up for LGBTQ rights, and who wrote a beautiful book for children introducing them to the Constitution.
I recently picked up her book On Balance, An Autobiography because I was curious to know the lady behind those accomplishments. And I was delighted.
In a lot of ways, Leila Seth reminds me of so many women of her generation that I know. Women like my mother and grandmother who kept perfect homes and created perfect gardens in every house they lived. Women like my grandmother who ran households which straddled joint family sensibilities with nuclear family constraints. Women who took the hard decision to send their children to boarding school so their studies would not be interrupted.
What makes Leila Seth extra special was that she did all of that and also was extremely successful professionally. How she landed up studying and practicing law seems almost serendipitous, but once she qualified, it was clearly her grit and knowledge that got her to scale the professional peaks that she did. Like many other women of her (and subsequent) generations, she followed her husband around, till they (like many other couples) took the decision to settle in a city of their choice. She did it with grace, even though it meant virtually starting afresh each time.
Reading the book from the prism of today, you notice the emotional burden she carried throughout her life. Despite her qualifications and her success, she is the one who silently does the things she would have been expected to do if she had not been working. The only time she speaks of that is in the poignant passage on her time as Chief Justice in the Shimla High Court where she says that for the first time ever she was living for herself.
Living in Shimla on my own as Chief Justice, I found that the household revolved around my needs. The staff at home was there to look after me and to ensure that I was comfortable. This was a new experience for me. In the morning, the newspapers were at my sole disposal, the bathroom available at my convenience, breakfast served at a time of my choosing and the car ready at my command. In the evening, the fire would be lit and the room heated and cheery for my return. In my earlier homes, my needs had always been considered last. The man of the house, whatever his job, was treated in a special manner; everything revolved around his needs, and it was accepted that he could never be disturbed when he was working. On the other hand, I, as a working woman was treated differently. The servants thought nothing of coming and disturbing me for every domestic enquiry and problem. The children felt they could walk into my office at home and complain about some triviality, even if I was in the middle of writing a judgement. At Shimla, for the first time, I felt like a person in my own right- and this attitude of the staff somehow rubbed off on my family when they came to visit.
This passage more than anything else, sends out a strong message that this emotional burden is something that should be acknowledged, because only after acknowledging it can we work towards changing it.
As someone who grew up in small towns in Eastern India, I loved the description of her life in Darjeeling and her pen portrait of the many gardens she knew. Her account of her years in Calcutta brought back many pleasant memories. If my mother writes her memoirs, she can pick large chunks out of the book.
Leila Seth is also, as we know, the mother of Vikram Seth, and the protagonist of ‘A Suitable Boy’ is loosely based on her. A lot of people thought that Latha of the book could have married “better”- that the man she chose was not at all ‘a suitable boy’. After reading this autobiography you understand exactly why Premo Seth and only Premo Seth was the “Suitable Boy” for the amazing Leila Seth.
If you like reading a well written autobiographies written in a slightly self-deprecating tone; if you are a woman who wants to know and understand the women who paved the way for us; if you love “A Suitable Boy”, then this book is for you.
If you’d like to pick up On Balance, An Autography written by Leila Seth, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.
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Book cover Amazon.
Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...
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