Çapital Chronicles: 'Delhi now loves money and chamak-dhamak'

Leila Seth was the first woman judge of Delhi High Court and the first woman Chief Justice of a State High Court (Himachal Pradesh).

November 03, 2014 10:30 am | Updated May 06, 2017 04:56 pm IST

Photos of Justice Leila Seth and her husband Prem, one taken in 1951 and the other in 2011. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Photos of Justice Leila Seth and her husband Prem, one taken in 1951 and the other in 2011. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Known for being punctual, Justice Leila Seth is waiting decked up in a bright green and orange, Jaipuri silk saree, a nicely tied up bun, a bindi, a tinge of red lipstick and kohl-rimmed eyes, for ‘your photographer’, she says as she ushers us into her living room at Noida Sector 15 A. The first woman judge of Delhi High Court and the first woman Chief Justice of a State High Court (Himachal Pradesh), an author and a social activist Leila Seth also makes her husband Prem Seth (90), ‘a thorough Delhiite’ sit with us for adding ‘the necessary inputs’ for the column. She lovingly addresses him as “Premo”

The room where we sit has a ‘character’ of its own – its doors have pictures of the family taken by Raghu Rai with a huge article on the shot, followed by more stories on their famous son Vikram Seth. A side table displays a photograph of Leila and Prem Seth just after their marriage in the early 1940s, and a happy family picture of youngest son Shantum. Her latest book “Talking of Justice” that was launched on her 84th birthday on October 20 also finds a place on the table. (These days she gets several phone calls for a quote or two from the book.) Pictures of gods, a Chinese black and white painting, life size windows overlooking her carefully looked-after garden with a swing, a recliner, her favourite white and red Champa trees and several ceramic potted plants complete the look of a warm home.

The Lucknow-born Seth, lived in Calcutta, Patna and Delhi for professional reasons. She shifted to Noida in 1992 as the land prices in Delhi were “unaffordably high”.

Most of Seth’s law studies happened after marriage. She was married at a very young age. Those days, life was less complicated. Seth, known for her lovely handloom saris agrees, “My marriage was completed in just Rs. 6000. My mother gave me two new saris, and seven for Premo’s family members. We served only ice cream at our reception. I didn’t feel bad at all. She was a widow and this is all she could afford. When I went to London for my Bar Exams (1956) I took eight saris with me – those were all I had. I lived out of those saris for three-and-half-years there,” she said smiling.

Mr. Seth, who worked with Bata for most part of his life, chipped in “..and I made my whole suit in just Rs. 30. A full meal would come for just two annas and for additional ‘ghee’ I would give two paisa more...”

A product of St. Stephen’s College, he would “go from St. Stephens College to Chankyapuri either by tonga and often walked from Old Delhi Railway Station to Shri Ram College as he “wasn't able to afford the six anna fare”. Mr. Seth, who was orphaned at six months was reared up by his mama and mami. A marathon athlete, he was rusticated from Government College Ajmer for hoisting the Indian National Flag as the country was then under the British regime.

Leila came to Delhi in 1972 to practise law in the High Court. “I lived in a rented accommodation owned by my friend at Kautilya Marg. I admitted my daughter (Aradhana Seth, a filmmaker/photographer) at Loreto Convent, Delhi Cantonment. I would drive my Ambassador car to the court and everywhere. I was not used to living on my own. Once at Maharani Bagh, my car tyre got punctured. It was 8-30 at night. I didn’t know how to put a jack so I stopped a taxi wala passing by. It took him a good one-and-half-hour to fix it. When I tried giving him money, he said, 'Aap to meri behen hain. Ye mera farz tha',” she recalled as her eyes moistened.

Completing the sentence with a faraway look in her eyes, she said: “Compassion was a part of Delhi earlier. Today, we can’t even think of stopping anyone to help us, especially if one is a woman. But at that time, I didn't even think twice before stopping him.”

Leila had to move from Kautilya Marg, Malcha Marg to Golf Links soon where “in just Rs. 2001 as rent, we got a three-bedroom house, a roof barsati and garden. Can you think of it now?” In 1978, when she became the first judge of the High Court, she moved to Teen Murti Lane; this was followed by Rajaji Marg. She has been lucky as far living in privileged areas is concerned. “Yes”, she admits. “I was, so I didn't actually go to lanes and by-lanes of east/old Delhi and know their actual living problems.”

But as a ‘female’ lawyer or judge, Seth had a tough time. “There were no rest rooms for women in courts earlier.” Her being a female judge also grated on the male-dominated psyche in the law fraternity, whether in Patna, or Delhi. “In most cases, male lawyers/judges especially in upper Himachal had a feudal mentality. They were not used to a woman sitting on their head. But as I was a mother of two boys, I knew how to handle men sensitively. I would gently ask their opinions first before ‘imposing’ mine on them. In Delhi, my male colleagues would introduce me as “meet our first lady judge”. I would take objections saying, ‘do you ever introduce your male colleague as ‘male judge’, so please avoid prefixing lady before me, a judge is a judge...”. It didn’t often go down well with many.

She also didn’t get the membership of the Delhi Gymkhana Club because she was a “woman judge” and didn’t get medical reimbursement for her mother as it was permitted only for a ‘male judge’.

She recalled: “When I had to work under a senior lawyer for a year, I went to Mr. Sachin Chaudhary who later became India’s finance minister. Looking at me, he asked, ‘why are you here, go and get married’. I said I am married. He said, ‘it is important to have children’. I said ‘I have a child’. Then he said, ‘Look it is unfair on the child not to have siblings, you should have two...’, I said, ‘I have three children...’ then he couldn’t say anything. I must confess, after that he was extremely helpful to me...”

She has also mentioned this in her autobiography “On Balance” that came out 11 years ago.

But things are changing in Delhi, she says with much relief. “Now there are many woman lawyers in High Court and lower courts, some seven-eight judges in HC and two in Supreme Court.” Also, legally speaking, society is changing, “In earlier cases, fathers would relinquish their daughters off their property and even daughters would relinquish their portions of the property for brothers to avoid family bitterness. But thankfully, now, if a father dies without writing any property in his daughter’s name, brothers share it legally on their own. I have handled such cases. This is certainly a good change.”

Delhi, she said, on one side has grown culturally –- there used to be only ITC Sangeet Sammelan, now there are IIC, IHC, IICC and so many literary, art and music festivals, but on the other hand, it has become more consumer-oriented from being a compassionate one. “It loves money and chamak-dhamak. Tha’s one reason I couldn’t buy a house in Delhi. The property dealers would ask for black money which I never had. So I bought a piece of land in Noida and made this huge house in just Rs. 10 lakh in 1987.”

And one also thing hasn’t changed – her black hair. The octogenarian laughs, “People think I dye my hair. I just have a lucky gene. I am now thinking of greying them to look older..” she laughed, as she posed patiently with ‘Premo’ holding his hand, lovingly.

Intro: Justice Leila Seth broke the glass ceiling in judiciary but as she and her husband reminisce about their early days in the capital, the narrative is peppered with chuckles and laughter. Rana Siddiqui Zaman shares in their joie de vivre and comes back with a great story to tell.

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