Mother in Law was how a London newspaper described Leila Seth the first Indian woman to top the Bar exams in England, in 1957. The newspaper carried a picture of the beautiful, young woman holding her infant son, born a few months before the exams. Another newspaper "lamented" the death of "the ideal of womanhood" in an editorial. "Of five hundred and eight students who wrote the Bar exam, one hundred and fifty two passed, ten gained distinctions and a woman a married woman topped," it sighed.
Leila Seth. Pic: Charumathi Supraja.
About 21 years later, a High Court Judge was intently studying a judgement cited by a lawyer in an Indian courtroom, when a mob of farmers dropped by. The reader explained that the farmers were in Delhi on the Prime Ministers invitation, "to see the sights." "Theyve been to the zoo and now they have come to see the (sole) woman judge in the Delhi High Court." Leila Seth retired at sixty two, as the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh, in October 1992.
In late July, Leila Seth was in Bangalore to release her book We, the Children of India - The Preamble to our Constitution at a Crossword Book Store. She struck an immediate rapport with the children in the audience.
Leila has already written her candid and rich autobiography On Balance. In that book, she speaks intimately to the reader, of her lifes journey. A strong thread of humour runs right through the story in which she shares how she overcame her fears, grew in a nourishing marriage, raised three remarkable children and juggled court struggles with personal dilemmas. Interweaving the personal with the political, her account brings alive events and people that younger persons may have encountered in history books. On Balance is packed with insights on life, non-discrimination, religion, history, marriage, parenting, travel and law, among other things.
As Leila Seth spoke to me in Bangalore after the release of We, the Children of India, she showed none of the strain of having had to be "equal plus" to be taken seriously, during her long, legal career. Shes serene, smiles spontaneously and speaks from a depth of understanding.
Is it someones birthday today? You have a family history of releasing books on birthdays
(Laughs) Youre right. On Balance was released on Premo, my husbands, 80th birthday and Vikram (Seth) released his book Two Lives on my 75th birthday. Youre right but today is not anyones birthday. I am in Bangalore to attend an event organised by Childrens Movement for Civic Awareness (CMCA). Theyre turning 10 tomorrow and wanted me to be part of the celebration. They read my book We, the Children " and said this is exactly what we are talking about too. Linking birthdays with book releases gives us a deadline to finish the book. Unless you set a date, nothing happens. You wont write.
Being a lawyer by profession, what kind of writer are you? Are you disciplined?
As I said, unless you set a deadline, nothing happens. I should have written this book four years ago. I was thinking about it and talking about it and once Vikram said to me, "why dont you just start writing?" And then I started. When I did, I had all those difficulties in adapting the language and content for children Im not a disciplined writer in the sense that I write everyday for a few hours. There are days when I dont write. But I set myself a deadline and finish by then.
As a legal expert, what do you think can pave the way to a just and equitable society? Laws barely protect; have a backlash and are even misused. The Domestic Violence Act, Anti-Dowry Laws, Decriminalising of consensual homosexual behaviour have hardly been able to change societal attitudes. So what do you think will?
I dont agree. Laws are a springboard. They set you a way, a vision, a target. Implementation takes time. Today, if youre talking about domestic violence of course, domestic violence is taking place but there is something that is working on peoples minds.
Ill tell you an instance. The law has changed for women to have equal rights in their fathers property in 1955-56. Yet, there are many brothers and sisters who dont share the property. In 1986, 30 years after the change in the law, I saw a case in the court when the brothers brought me affidavits and said our sisters have signed and said they do not want a share in the property. I met the sisters separately and asked them why they were signing away their property. They said they come from lower middle class families. "If we want to go on a holiday with our children, we can only come to our brothers house as our father is dead. We cant afford to antagonise them." The women were aware of their rights but not willing to assert.
Yet, there were many other brothers and sisters who were sharing property. Some sisters were fighting cases. Some brothers were sharing the property even if the parents had willed the property to them exclusively.
First - there is a law, then there is awareness, then comes assertion and then action. It takes time and different amounts of time among different categories of people. In some cases it is the more educated and more affluent who assert, but in some cases they are the worst like in female foeticide, the more affluent are doing the worst.
Its about tipping the scales. The more people who object, the more people who are conscious and particular about getting things the right way, they push the others into a corner.
In your autobiography, you described yourself as having grown from a "shy and frightened girl" to someone who is "willing to fight for change, though in a quiet manner." How did that change come about and how did you cope with gender bias which must have been a very real thing in the times that you were starting practice?
In the Patna High Court, clients and lawyers would ask - "Unko kyon case de rahe hain? Ye ladies kya karenge?" ("Why are you giving her the case? What can these women do?") There were lots of people to pull me down. You had to be "equal plus". You had to be better than the men to get the case.
Once, a solicitor sent me a brief for an opinion which I gave. I never heard from him and was unsure of whether I would get paid. When I met him at a party he said his client had sent back the opinion asking for "a male opinion." The solicitor had tried convincing the client that I was a "young, intelligent lawyer whod worked hard on the case". The client would have none of it. So he sent the brief, with my opinion, to a senior lawyer, who kept it for months and then wrote in that he endorses every word of my opinion. I knew that the solicitor would have hesitated to send me more work if the senior lawyer had not endorsed my opinion, knowing that all his clients would want "male" opinions. Things have changed quite a bit now, I would say.
Your mother put her foot down and said you cant be a nun. You seem to have been a very different kind of a parent.
Thats to a great extent because of my husband. He was always bolder than me. When Vikram said he wanted to be a poet, I said he should take up a World Bank job and work for at least 5 years so he can earn a pension and support himself later. Vikram felt his creativity will wane by then. My husband pointed out that Vikram had been getting such prestigious scholarships. "If other people can have faith in him, why cant we?"
My second son, Shanthum, learnt boot and shoe manufacture and later decided that was not what he wanted to do. He pursued Development Studies and is a Buddhist teacher now. (Daughter Aradhana is a film art director.) You must give your children the space to grow. We all need space to grow in our lives, whether were adults or children.