An appropriate title for a book written by a master juggler: judge, lawyer, social activist, mother.
Justice Leila Seth is many things to many people. For those that read the newspapers last year, she is a member of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law chaired by Justice JS Verma, constituted in 2012 in the aftermath of the December 16 Delhi gang rape and co-author of its groundbreaking report. For members of the legal profession, she is the first woman to be appointed as a Delhi High Court judge, and the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court (Himachal Pradesh, by the way). For many others, she is an important, articulate and sane voice, speaking out against injustice and prejudice in a country, and a society becoming increasingly intolerant, of criticism of itself among other things. All these facets of Justice Seth’s personality and career are on display in her autobiography On Balance.
In this book, she narrates her accidental foray into law (becoming, along the way, “mother-in-law”!), her long marriage, her storied career and her life as mother to three remarkable children, including author Vikram Seth.
What sets this book apart from others is that Justice Seth is forthright in acknowledging how difficult it is to balance the demands of a high-pressure career, which the law is, and the relentless sacrifices expected from Indian wives and mothers.
The law was, and remains still, a male bastion, and with verve and humour, Justice Seth describes early tribulations faced by her as a rare woman lawyer. One anecdote includes a bathroom filled with old files and bats (read the book to find out which kind!). She discusses her elevation from Bar to Bench with trademark insight and humour: “I was used to arguing and doing the best for my client and case and then ‘letting the damn judge decide’. I soon realised that I was now that damn judge; and that the tremendous responsibility stopped with me.” She also describes an incident where a group of people entered the High Court; they had seen the Zoo, and had come to see the woman judge!
Justice Seth tackles difficult topics—whether related to her personal or her professional life—with equal aplomb. Her use of easy, lucid and simple language makes this an eminently readable book. As someone who has faced sexism before it became a word, she is able to illustrate how far the profession has come. She demonstrates the skill and difficulty involved in balancing a family and a career; something addressed by several female professionals/authors, and few members of the legal profession. She also shows the value and the power the law holds: what it can do and what, in the right hands, it is capable of. This is an important book to read—you will laugh, you will smile, but most of all, you will think. I did.