Leila Seth was the first woman Chief Justice of a High Court in India, the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and the first woman to top the Bar examination in London. Now Penguin/ Viking is promoting her autobiography On Balance, with great fanfare. Notwithstanding her own literary effort, Leila Seth is also the Suitable Boy Vikram Seth’s mother….
Leila Seth opted to take the law course in London only because the institute she went to was not strict about attendance. But soon she not only went on to top the bar examination—becoming the first Indian woman to do so—but in the course of her career became the first woman Chief Justice of a High Court , first woman judge of the Delhi High Court, besides being the first woman on the Law Commission.
For a career that began tentatively and with a view to keep her husband in good cheer (who would be in a sullen and foul mood if his matching socks were not ready and washed or if he had to switch on the lights himself) Leila Seth has achieved more than just many firsts to her credit.
She broke ground not only as a career woman competing in a profession traditionally considered a male preserve but maintained a fine balance at home to bring up three talented and successful children. And as for her husband Prem Seth, who she lovingly calls Premo, the disgruntlement did not last long. He stood by her through thick and thin in their 50+ years of matrimonial life.
Her autobiography On Balance, (Penguin/ Viking) released recently is dedicated to her husband and her two-year-old granddaughter Nandini. Notwithstanding her own formidable achievements and this excellent literary effort, Leila Seth is also the Suitable Boy Vikram Seth’s mother.
At the star-studded launch of her autobiography (that was made to coincide with her husband’s 80th birthday) the who’s who of the literati and the chatterati world descended at a five star hotel in Delhi for “Vikram Seth’s mother’s book launch!” There, mother and son took turns to read passages from the book. This was just as well, for Vikram Seth not only edited the book for grammar and language but the celebrated writer is also responsible for culling out vast chunks of material from book.
” The book would have been much thicker than it is, but for Vikram who told me to leave out certain things that he said were unnecessary,” she says. But neither Vikram nor Shantum, her second son who is a peace activist and Buddhist teacher, or her art director daughter Aradhana objected to her writing about their lives liberally.
One example of the author’s integrity and honesty – the hallmark of any autobiography – manifests in Seth’s revelations of Vikram Seth’s bi-sexual orientation and Shantum’s earlier experimentation with marijuana. “I sent manuscripts of the book to all my three children. And they did not object to what I had written,” she says.
As for herself and husband Premo she claims she has held nothing back. “If I was younger I might be bothered but at 73 it doesn’t matter anymore and as for Premo he was aware of the word to word progress of the autobiography ever since it was begun over two years ago and encouraged me to write all,” she says.
And that is what makes the 474-page autobiography a good read. It has many amusing vignettes and asides. There is the anxiety of an anxious mother whose colleagues at the High Court would badger her with questions like when her three children would settle down and get regular jobs. The family driver’s dismissal of Vikram Seth’s, pre- A Suitable Boy days, is particularly interesting…to quote him from the book… ” (He) sits upstairs just reading and writing and sleeping and eating and living off his parents’’.
In hindsight it seems very interesting and ironic since all her three children are today successful in their chosen fields. But what if they had not succeeded? What if Vikram Seth’s voluminous Suitable Boy, writing which he spent seven years, wouldn’t have taken off the ground?
” My children had chosen their path and they were happy wherever it would lead them. Yes I was worried for Vikram that he might end up as a penniless writer in some garage. But anyone who knows Vikram would vouch that if Suitable Boy had not been a success I am sure he would have been happy leading the life of a penniless writer,” says she.
Besides the family, the autobiography gives a detailed and informative account of the legal profession. It particularly provides insights into the gender bias and the excruciatingly slow-paced Indian courts and corruption in judiciary.
In a field where females were rare, Leila Seth held her own refusing to do women’s cases and choosing to compete with her male colleagues taking up tax matters, constitutional law and criminal cases—often a sole woman judge among a gaggle of male judges.
Leila Seth says she feels fulfilled after the birth of her grand-daughter Nandini (Shantum’s daughter) who is the bundle of joy for the entire household. However she believes the future has many more years and good things in store for her. But she won’t write a sequel because, as she says, ” It is now left to Premo to fill in the blanks by writing an autobiography too.
Vikram Seth has already prodded his father to write a few incidents of his life and has got his word that he would finish his memoirs for his mother’s 75th birthday. Prem Seth who started out as an office help in the Bata Manufacturing company in Ambala, stacking shoes and running errands, went on to become the Chairman of the company.
But for the moment, the Seth family is looking forward to the publication of Vikram Seth’s latest book Two Lives —a biography this time—which has fetched him the highest advance any Indian writer has ever got.