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On balance... a woman of substance

ANJANA RAJAN speaks to Leila Seth, whose autobiography has just been released.

Leila Seth with her granddaughter Nandini in Noida. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

READING AN autobiography can be a humbling experience. Not simply because the person writing it has done some worthy things in life that merit being documented and emulated, but because writing one's own life story requires some wrenching honesty. Not every author can live up to the bill. Those who don't, however, are not worth reading. Those who do, are likely to become bestsellers while their books are still hot from the Press. That is pretty much the case with Leila Seth's "On Balance - An Autobiography" released by Penguin Books India this week at New Delhi's ITC Hotel Maurya Sheraton.

Leila Seth, while admitting that "sometimes it's quite hard to be honest," says, "I wanted to be honest and I felt that unless I am, there's no point in writing it."

But, conscious that people have varying perspectives and not wishing to violate anyone's privacy, she says she sent her children manuscript copies of the autobiography for their comments, remarking, "I didn't want to create unhappiness in the house."

Some people consider her a publishers' delight because she is the mother of the celebrated author Vikram Seth. But even if some of us wonder at the present generation of `starmakers' that refers to this aspect first, rather noting what a remarkable woman she is in her own right, this individual with a string of firsts to her credit - first woman judge of the Delhi High Court, first woman Chief Justice of a State, and the first woman to top the Bar examinations in London - says dotingly, "For me it's a big pleasure. If someone praises you, you can just smile. But if someone praises your children, you lap it up. I just love it!"

Some people are supposed to be like characters out of a book, but as you enter her home on the outskirts of Delhi, as the family rises in cheerful mayhem from the large round dining table, you know you have walked right into the pages of Leila Seth's memoirs. The launch of the autobiography has been a family occasion in more ways than one. Shantum, the second son, who is a Buddhist dharmacharya and peace activist, sums up the feeling when he says, "For me the launch was more to celebrate my father's (80th) birthday, and I'm glad so many people came. It was not the kind of function where you invite a lot of politicians."

Yet to become a public figure, is not so easy. His filmmaker sister Aradhana admits as much when she says she has been used as a professional, to working "behind the scenes". She says, "When the manuscript arrived it was really exciting for us." With the book selling faster than it can be supplied there is another feeling, though. "Now, everybody knows about our life, it's... " as she pauses in search of the right phrase, wordsmith Vikram supplies, "disconcerting," and Aradhana concurs. "But at the same time, the fact that the book is there is very satisfying."

For all the siblings, reading the autobiography has been a process of discovery. They refer to the maternal grandfather they never knew. Growing up in the knowledge that their mother had lost her father when still a little girl could not stop them from being moved and sad too on reading of it in her words. Vikram the writer points out the immense stamina required in such work, noting, "It's a very different style from writing judgements." But as for the exposure, the celebrity author says he's used to interviews anyway.

The entire book doesn't read as if written under the seal of good housekeeping, though. Searing injustice, death and even discord are given their due but dignified place. Having twice declined - "with no regrets" - the offer of becoming a judge of the Patna High Court because Patna held no career opportunities for her husband Prem Seth, this dedicated professional who has always been a committed homemaker does not fail to mention one of the reasons for not studying divorce law in England. The timings of the lectures were such, she writes, that "I promptly decided to drop the intention of studying divorce as a subject, out of fear of its occurrence at home." Yet Prem Seth's quiet support is evident throughout the book, as at home, where he sits with the TV switched on to catch a glimpse of his celebrated wife on the news. "I realise," he says, "that a woman wears so many hats," and his policy towards his wife has always been to "relieve her of the humdrum of daily life."

Recalling the humiliation the family faced when Prem Seth was implicated by his office - a Government corporation - in a cooked up enquiry, the author recalls, "It was galling." Yet she says they would never have considered settling abroad to avoid such situations in future. "I say, well, India is my home. I can get angry with the system, but it's where I want to be." She feels the experience also helped her empathise more with people when she became a judge. She adds, "But I still feel it was the worst experience of my life."

Planning to devote her time now to working for education of children, the septuagenarian author's energy is still high. With a family tradition of planting trees on every significant occasion, this remarkable woman who loves gardening, has many more seeds to cast upon the winds of time.

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