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                    On Balance: An Autobiography

                                          Leila Seth

Penguin India

496 pages; Average reading time 7 hours 01 min

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This bookbhook summary is handcrafted by Gayathri Manikandan. Gayathri describes herself as an ex-software engineer, book lover, craft enthusiast and a proud citizen of ‘Imagi’nation.’

This handcrafted summary will help you know

  • More about India’s first female chief justice
  • How Leila Seth managed work and home
  • Challenges that working women face, even at higher levels

Some sentences have been quoted from the book. These are marked in green

My parents

Much to the delight of my parents, their longing for a daughter came true on the day of Diwali on 20 October 1930.  They already had two sons Raj Kumar (or Michi), Sushil Kumar (Sashi) and I was named Leila. It was the pre-independence times, and my father was in the Imperial Railway Service run by the government. My mother was from a westernised background, her father was a doctor and was remarried (after my grandmother’s death) to a young and educated woman.

My father, on the other hand, was from a more Indianized background brought up in a village in present day Uttar Pradesh (UP). His mother was a young widow with seven children and wasn’t educated. She pawned her only piece of jewellery to educate my father. He excelled in his studies and remained with Imperial Railway Service until he died in 1942.

East meets West

In the 1930s, the years of my childhood, the British Raj was ruling over India and western education by Christian missionaries was most sought after. Gandhi, Nehru and Bhagat Singh were well-known figures. However, my immediate family favoured English & English became the language I think and dream in. It was not until my college days, when Hindi was made compulsory in post-independent India that I took up Hindi in college (though I failed the exams).

As my father was employed in the Railways, we also had the opportunity to live in Punjab and Bengal apart from UP. The small railway towns and the railway colonies in bigger towns ranged from sprawling bungalows to tent houses.

Friends

My parents had an active social life and played tennis and threw dinner parties. After a car accident, when I was about four, my mother became apprehensive about cars and suffered acute headaches. Because of this, my father rented a house in Darjeeling where we all lived, visited by my father for six months in a year. I went to the Loreto Convent, which had children from different countries.

In Darjeeling, we became close with the Dutts family. Later when my father was seriously ill and died in Calcutta, and my mother had to be there to take care of him, I lived with the Dutts as I always did when father and mother went on trips. The Dutts were very kind in accommodating us in their home while my brothers were in boarding school in Darjeeling. They were careful about not letting us feel the weight of their generosity and had secretly paid for my brother’s education, which we were made to believe was a scholarship from the school.

Quest for a suitable boy

I was nineteen when I met Premo. He had come to visit a family friend on his return to India from England after doing a course in boot and shoe manufacture. A year later, I visited Delhi for an extended New Year holiday, and a meeting was arranged at Kanpur for Premo to see me. Though he liked me and found me unassuming and intelligent, I was hesitant. I was not bowled over at our first meeting.

With permission from my mom, Premo started writing to me, and the correspondence helped me know him better. He was orphaned at a young age and was raised by his uncle and aunt, who he thought were his parents until he was the age of eight. He left home in protest against getting him married to his widowed sister-in-law. He joined a Bata shop in Ambala as a shop-boy and was later recommended as an assistant in a Bata shop in Mussourie.

Like my father, Premo appeared to be honest, steady and sincere. However, we were nurtured differently. While Premo’s grandmother was of the opinion that anything to deal with leather and shoes were best left to low-caste people, my mother’s view was that it was no disgrace to be a shoemaker but only for a shoemaker to make bad shoes. We eventually got married on 13 March 1951, 13 months after we first met.

In the family way

After we had been married, we lived in Batanagar near Calcutta. Moreover, for a short while, I continued my job as a stenographer at the Assam Rail Link Project. I had chosen a second-hand car over a romantic honeymoon at Switzerland, but little did we realise that we had spent all our money in buying the car and we had no money to buy petrol! We had to borrow money from the car seller to fill petrol for our drive back to Bata Nagar. It was amidst this financial situation that I discovered, much to my shock, that I was pregnant. Ma told me that each child comes with his food and fate and that I should not worry unnecessarily. Thus came Vikram, into this world.

The accidental career

When Vikram was not yet two, Premo was given an opportunity to work in Bata Development Office in London. We were naturally very pleased but decided to leave Vikram behind until we settled down in the new place. I was mostly seasick throughout my journey and remained in bed. After a little less than two weeks of travelling, we arrived at England greeted by the grey overcast English sky that looked depressing. The cosy image in my head with pictures from Beautiful Garden and Homes were all shattered by our poky little hotel room that was gloomy, grey and bleak.

My house-hunting trips, after Premo left for work, ended in disappointments owing to rejections on racial grounds and homes with no baths or shower. We eventually settled down to a flat with the property owner living downstairs. After upsetting our property owner with ringing doorbell, loud laughter, Indian music and creaking steps, we decided to move out as were planning to bring Vikram.

When I arrived in London, I had decided to do a six-month Montessori diploma course hoping to start a nursery school when I returned to India. Later, I decided to apply for admission to the Bar because the attendance requirements were not too strict.

Clearing the Bar exams

Vikram arrived in London when he was three years old, was not too sure of us and took some time to bond. Soon, he felt at home, and we enrolled him in a school. A year and a half later, Vikram and Ma (who came unannounced on a cheap chartered flight ticket) returned to India due to tension over the Suez Canal. Therefore, when his little brother Shantum arrived, Vikram was not there. At that time, I had already passed Part I and the final Bar examinations were due in a few months.

 We soon hired a baby-minder and we left Shantum every morning at her place and brought him back in the evening. With all these preparations, I took my exams relaxed though not as well prepared, as I would have liked. The day the results were out, I could not believe myself that I had come first in the Bar examination. Moreover, with that Bar Final results, my dream of starting a nursery school ended.

Young woman, go and get married

Shortly after completing my law studies, we moved back to Batanagar near Kolkata, and I was busy setting up the home and Vikram had started school. Once that was sorted out, the next task in hand was to find me a senior who would take me in his chambers. Pupillage is an apprenticeship to a senior, enabling one to acquire a proper knowledge of the technique of the profession. Moreover, that meant following the senior around like a shadow.

After consulting a list of barristers who were willing to take pupil, I chose Mr. Sachin Chaudhari and thought I would call him for an appointment. However, his calls were filtered, and there was no way for me to reach him. After a month, I finally booked an appointment with him. When I met him and asked me to join his chambers, he said ‘Instead of joining the legal profession, young woman, go and get married’. I replied that I was already married, to which he asked me to have a baby. I said I had a baby, and he said I should have another one. I replied ‘Mr. Chaudhari, I already have two children’. Taken aback, he said, ‘Then come and join my chambers, you are a persistent young woman and will do well at the Bar’.

So, this woman who not only wore a sleeveless blouse but also drove a car joined the chambers and completed one year of pupillage, picking up Vikram on the way back home from my brother’s home where he went after School. Late evenings, my attention was with Shantum who had been looked after by his Ayah, with a lunchtime visit from Premo.

My law practice

Premo moved from Batanagar to Pune for work and so did I and started practising at the Pune High court. I was one of only two women in that court at that time, the other being Dharamshila Lal. She was unafraid, bold and forceful. In short, she was the sole female star. We lived in a beautiful old house that once belonged to the Maharaja of Chainpur (owing to my husband’s position in Bata Shoe factory). Moreover, I arrived at the court in a chauffeur-driven black Plymouth. People could not understand why I was roaming around in the dusty corridors and courtrooms spending time with uncouth clients. However, Dharamshila Lal put me in my place when I complained to her about the musty toilet with bats flying about.

In due course, I found my feet and appeared for many cases including a rape case and a case involving death sentence, that gave me moments of deep dejection. Another case was that of a train engine driver convicted of criminal negligence and sentenced to 2 years rigorous imprisonment. He was unaware of a tragedy that happened when the train passed through a low bridge smashing and severing passengers sitting on the rooftop of the train unknown to the driver. I won the appeal, and my ultimate recognition came when the driver, not having the means to show his appreciation in a material way, brought his entire family to meet me and insisted on touching my feet.

After having two wonderful boys, we longed for a girl and had Aradhana. Vikram and Shantum, by this time, were in boarding school. We had difficult times when there was a clash between my duties as a lawyer and a wife and even told Premo one day about quitting my work. He replied, ‘I know that your work is one of your hands and that the family is the other. How can I ask you to cut off one hand? No, no, you must work, and we will adjust.’

My turn: Delhi

Premo was transferred back to Calcutta from Pune. Though I was less enthusiastic about the move, it was a very important one for Premo. I, on the other hand, worked very hard but did not make too much headway. There were gender specific challenges. It was difficult for a solicitor to brief young female lawyers. My brother who was a senior executive at Andrew Yule & Co sought my opinion only informally as his company preferred briefing a male lawyer.

On the personal front, our stay in Calcutta strengthened our family bonds. My brothers were living in Calcutta, my mom came over for Sunday lunches, and we had a large circle of friends. We also found our gardener Sona, who stayed with us for thirty-five years. He lovingly tended garden after garden, as we moved homes. Our children learnt to love flowers, trees and enjoyed peaceful gardens.

In Calcutta, Premo too was reaching a sort of dead end with Bata. We decided to move out of Calcutta but the question was where we should go. It was essential for me to stabilise my practice in a single place and we zeroed in on Delhi, as both the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court were there. Therefore, I moved first to test waters. Premo had to settle for a transfer as Factory Manager to Faridabad, which was a bit of a comedown for him.

First woman judge in the capital

In early 1978, I was recommended as a judge for the Delhi High Court. Until then, there had only been one-woman judge, Anna Chandy who served as a Judge in the Kerala High Court during the late 1950s. Since then there were no women judges, and this issue had been under discussion and became more prominent during 1975, which was declared the Women’s International year.

The only two women who qualified for being a judge at that time were Urmila Kapur and me. Nevertheless, fate and destiny made me the first woman judge of Delhi High court on 25 July 1978.

There were interesting incidents when I was sitting as a Judge with Justice T.P.S Chawla who insisted a lawyer to address the court correctly. Justice Denning in England had issued directions that a woman judge has to be addressed as ‘My Lady’. The lawyer, however, had no idea what to do and when explained what was expected out of him, he simply chose to turn his face towards Justice Chawla and answer as if he had asked the question.

On another occasion, I was disturbed by shuffling of feet and the soft murmur of many voices. When enquired, I came to know that the dozens of people staring at me were a group of farmers whom Prime Minister Charan Singh had invited to Delhi to see the sights. They had visited the zoo and then came to see the woman judge at the Delhi High Court!

Women’s economic empowerment

Since the beginning, I had refrained myself from appearing only for cases about women. I had, by choice, taken up civil and constitutional work. However, as a judge, I wrote judgements for cases that had a woman’s angle (whether Silver utensils and Gold ornaments were considered ‘Jewelry’), a dowry-death case, and a custody case and so on.

In the dowry-death case, I was appalled at the alacrity with which the man remarried while he was still on bail and the parent’s mindset to give away their daughter to such a man. The law can only help. It is for parents of young girls to change their mindset about marriage being the be-all and end-all of their life. The education and economic empowerment of a girl are necessary.

Once, when I had asked a good friend who rose to very high judicial position, if he will give a dowry to his daughter, he answered that he would as it was nearly impossible in his community to get his daughter married without a dowry but at the same time he would not take dowry for his son. Though it was not what I wanted to hear, it was one small step forward.

Meanwhile, on the personal front, my daughter Aradhana was over 25 and was making commendable progress with her career in films. However, I could not help my apprehensions and fear about her landing up with someone unsuitable or worse, no one at all. My eldest son Vikram had his Tibetan journey compiled and published as a book and was working on his novel, The Golden Gate. My other son, Shantum, on the other hand, pursuing his search for an alternate lifestyle and a path of peace.

First female Chief Justice of India

11 years after being a Judge, in 1988, I was elated to know about my recommendation to be elevated to the Supreme Court of India. However, by a twist of fate, Ms.Fathima Beevi was recommended in place of me and she went on to become the first woman to be a judge at the Supreme Court of India. On the other hand, I was the senior most judge in line to become the Chief Justice. In 1991, Ranganath Misra, the then Chief Justice of India, decided that I should be made the Chief Justice of the High court of Himachal Pradesh in Shimla.

Unlike male judges whose families would follow them to their places of transfer, mine would not be able to give up their assignments. However, I was going to be the first woman Chief Justice of a state in India, and I did not want to pass up. I accepted the move and had the new experience of the entire household revolving around me. In my earlier homes, everything revolved around the needs of the man of the house, and for the first time I felt like I am a person in my right. It was in Shimla, Vikram completed his revision of A Suitable Boy.

As my sixty-second birthday approached, and so did my retirement, my memories came rushing back to me and I indulged myself in memories of the past.

Retirement is not the end

After my retirement, we moved to our own house in Noida with its tiny garden, which is my great joy. We had decided to move to Noida, as we did not have the sort of money to buy a house in Delhi.

About six months after retirement, I started getting depressed about not being able to have a routine anymore, and I could find no sense of purpose. Therefore, I joined a nine-month course of study to do a diploma in environmental law at the World Wide Fund for Nature. When I completed it, I was invited to be a member of the Board of Trustees and later became its Vice President.

In 1997, when I was busy with my arbitration work, I was appointed a full-time member of the 15th Law Commission. The Law Commission’s work was to look at particular areas of law suggested by the Government or Supreme Court or taken up by ourselves and prepare a report to be submitted to the government regarding the reforms that need to be done.We prepared several reports covering a wide range of subjects.

I did face difficulties and challenges in my legal career, but there were brave women, both in India and in other countries, who inspired me with their courage and determination. I feel humbled when I think of such luminaries.

I remember my mother who would feel upset when she was left out of activities of her children, and I was determined that I should have a life of own, so that there is no expectation of reciprocation of attention from my children. This did not mean I did not give my children affection or time; it was just that it was not to the exclusion of everything else.

The balancing act

This balancing act has not been easy. However, I have realised that if you are sincere with your work and love your family, you can share your problems and difficulties with them and it is surprising to see the solutions that emerge through consensus. In addition, I felt it was less stressful doing two different kinds of work. You could switch between your work and household, the change itself becoming a form of relaxation. The fame, the privileges, the recognition are fleeting, and I bring myself down to earth with a remark Premo made to me when we were first married: ‘It is better to spend time making something of yourself than socialising’

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