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Justice Leila Seth Chose To Put Herself Out There, In A World Where Social Stigma Often Outweighs The Law

The first woman judge of the Delhi High Court, died at the age of 86, on Friday.

07/05/2017 9:14 AM IST | Updated 07/05/2017 9:19 AM IST
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File photo of Leila Seth, first woman judge on the Delhi High Court and the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court.

The obituaries must capture the essence of the person in a headline. And so every headline marking the death of Leila Seth will be some variant of this.

Leila Seth, Delhi High Court's first woman judge passes away.

Justice Leila Seth, first woman chief justice of state high court, dies at 86

Justice Leila Seth, 1st woman CJ of HC, dies; donates organs.

Somewhere in the copy it will mention she was the mother of celebrated author Vikram Seth. It will talk about her work to strengthen the anti-rape laws after the Nirbhaya case. All of this is true but Leila Seth was so much more than the sum of all those parts. What was most special about Justice Leila Seth is she chose to put herself out there in ways most public figures avoid.

When the Supreme Court reinstated Section 377, dismissing homosexuals as a minuscule minority, Leila Seth wrote an op-ed in the Times of India saying that "would be like saying the Parsi community could be legitimately imprisoned or deported at Parliament's will because they number only a few tens of thousands."

And she did not balk at mentioning why that ruling disturbed her, not just as a judge but as a mother. "We know that (my children) are hard-working and affectionate people, who are trying to do some good in the world. But our eldest, Vikram, is now a criminal, an unapprehended felon. This is because like millions of other Indians, he is gay."

Leila Seth did not need to come out as the mother of a gay or bisexual man. Her long and illustrious career had provided her more than enough laurels to rest on. She could have spoken about Section 377 as a jurist and maintained a discreet silence on its personal impact on her. But she chose to speak out. That, for me, was the most remarkable thing about Justice Leila Seth. She chose to speak out.

I cannot claim to know her. But once I had the honour of moderating a session between the two Seths, mother and son, on stage at the Kolkata Literary Meet. I asked her, with some trepidation, about coming to terms with her son's sexuality. Even though she had written about it in her best-selling 2003 memoir, On Balance, it still felt a shade impertinent, a public intrusion into the personal sphere, made doubly awkward by her son sitting right there.

She could have spoken about Section 377 as a jurist and maintained a discreet silence on its personal impact on her. But she chose to speak out. That, for me, was the most remarkable thing about Justice Leila Seth.

Her answer blew me away. "People have told me they were not able to accept this about their children. And almost gave up on their child. Reading (the book) has made them realise to care for the child more. The child is not in the normal routine life. He is the lonely child. He needs more love, more affection."

She did not sugarcoat her concerns. She never claimed it was easy for her to accept it. She worried how the law and sexuality could be misused against her son. But more than anything else she worried about something far more fundamental, something that we speak too little about when he talk about rights, discrimination and obsolete penal codes. She spoke about something much more vulnerable - love and loneliness.

"I remember reading a book called The Well of Loneliness about two lesbians and I remember it moved me. Love is such a beautiful thing and they could not share it with anybody. I think that came back to me. I read it at 17 and I thought how lonely a person must be if you can't share his love with other people."

In a society where tolerance often means Don't Ask Don't Tell, where social stigma often outweighs even the weight of the law, Leila Seth's candour was more important than many realise. In a fiercely private family, that could not have been easy. It was not just about sexuality. In her book she talks about something else that most of us never talk about – the tragedy of losing a child. But she talks about it because she believed in breaking the silence. She did it because she believed in acceptance not just for her children but for everyone's children.

That's why she wrote a book about the preamble to the Constitution aimed at children, to remind them what values this country was founded on. "If you cannot be taught moral science at least teach constitutional morality in school," she once said. I have seen throngs of school children listening wide-eyed as she talked about the Constitution, listening with the rapt attention one thought was reserved for Sachin Tendulkars and Chetan Bhagats not retired judges.

What was most touching and most wonderful was to see Vikram and Leila Seth together, the gentle banter of the adult son and the aging mother, ribbing each other, teasing each other, yet protecting each other with such wit and grace.

She said with her first book she became known as a biographer. With her second book she was called a writer of children's books. "I don't know what I will become when I do my third," she said.

"You will become competition," said her son.

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Sharmila Tagore (L) with author Vikram Seth and his mother Leila Seth at a function on JRD Tata Memorial Oration and awards, in New Delhi.

Leila Seth laughed. Her pride in her son was unmistakable and justified. But while Indian mothers often puff up with pride about their children's achievements, Leila Seth, as always, was a little different.

She remembered how "horrified" she was when Vikram came home to write instead of finishing his Ph. D. She worried at one point that none of her children were "settled" in any conventional sense. Vikram sat at home writing books. Her other son Shantum was learning to be a Buddhist teacher and meditating in the backyard. And her daughter Aradhana was working in films with "boyfriends popping up like mushrooms." She said a family driver told her colleagues that "koi kuchh nahin karta. Khaali saab aur memsaab kaam kartey hain (None of them do anything. Only the parents work)."

I remember the audience laughing uproariously at the anecdote. But I also remember what she said right after that.

"And I thought what had I done. Had I brought them up the wrong way? And I thought, no if I had to bring them up again, I'd do exactly the same."

She should be proud of the children she raised. But, on balance, they should even more proud of the mother she was.

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