Wednesday, May 12, 2004

wonder woman

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in May 2004).

On Balance by Leila Seth.Penguin Books India/The Viking Press. $11.15

In 1959, Leila Seth became the first woman to top the London bar exam's pass list. When she returned to India and sought apprenticeship with a (male) barrister, he told her, "Instead of joining the legal profession, young woman, go and get married."

"But sir, I am already married," replied Seth. "Then go and have a child," he said. "I have a child," Seth, countered. "It is not fair to the child to be alone, so, young lady, you should have a second child," Sachin Chaudhuri, the barrister persisted. "Mr. Chaudhuri, I already have two children," Seth continued. The barrister gave up. "Then come and join my chambers, you are a persistent young woman and will do well at the bar," he said. Not only did Leila Seth do well, she eventually became the first woman chief justice of a high court in India.

On Balance, Seth's autobiography contains many such anecdotes, told without rancour, and with honesty and humility, qualities that are rare in extremely successful people. Seth, now retired at 73, was highly accomplished in her field. But she was an accidental lawyer. When she went to England in 1954 with her husband who had been transferred there, she planned to do a Montessori course. Instead she chose law, because she needed a course where the attendance requirements were not too strict so she could look after her son, Vikram. She didn't do too badly: This is the same Vikram who has authored, among other works, A Suitable Boy.

Being a woman, and a lawyer at that, wasn't easy anywhere in the world then, but especially in India. Seth doggedly fought prejudice to take up complex cases that her male counterparts tried to keep her away from. She writes that her husband, Premo, to whom her book is dedicated, has always been the rock in her life. "Premo is not like other men I know or meet, who are apprehensive of their wife's success," she writes. "He has given me the space to grow and not held me back; rather, he has encouraged me."

There were lighter moments. Once, while she was intently reading a judgment, she heard a buzz of voices and shuffling of feet and looked up to see the courtroom suddenly packed with people staring at her. On enquiring, she was told, "The crowd is a group of farmers . . . invited to Delhi to see the sights. They have just visited the zoo: and now they have come to see the woman judge in the Delhi High Court."

Seth often worried whether her children were getting enough attention. It was difficult balancing work and home, but once, a very young Vikram said to her, "Mama, I am so glad you work and use your mind and don't talk to me only about the price of onions and the stupidity of servants." Spoken like a Seth. In Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, the close-knit Seth family inspires many characters and jokes. Vikram took six years to finish this novel, most of which was written in his parents' house in Delhi. At one time during those six years, Leila Seth writes that the family driver told a friend of the family that Vikram "sits upstairs just reading and writing and sleeping and eating and living off his parents."

While Leila Seth is anything but partisan in writing about her three children, her autobiography has enough tales to satisfy those who admire the writings of Vikram Seth as well.