Monday, 17 May 2010



It is easy to write for adults, but it is tougher to write for a 10-year-old. My teacher at the journalism school always told so. Justice Leila Seth echoes similar view as she tells me about her recently-published book We the Children of India: The Preamble to Our Constitution. The jurist-activist-author was in the town recently. I caught up with her on a warm evening soon after she landed in Pune.

“My nine-year-old granddaughter Nandini didn't understand anything when I used words like 'citizen', or 'represent',” justice Seth says. “It was then I realised that children need to be told about the values of democracy, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity in a way so that it gets into their consciousness at an early age,” she informs. “Besides the ideas from my granddaughters Nandini and Anamika, the children of a school also told me how they want me to explain the Preamble,” justice Seth recalls with fondness.

Beautifully illustrated by architect-artist Bindia Thapar, the book primarily explains the words in the Preamble to our Constitution; a bit of history about the British rule, Independence and the framing of the Constitution has also been included in this 40-page book. Several historic photographs are part of the book; Mahatma Gandhi walking on the beach in Bombay, Pandit Nehru addressing on midnight of August 14 of 1947, and he's signing the Constitution are some such photographs that are bound to make a young reader curious about the leaders of the nation.

Justice Seth was the first woman judge at Delhi High Court, and first woman Chief Justice in any High Court in India. She served in the 15th Law Commission that recommended amendments to the Hindu Succession Act, giving equal rights to the daughters in joint family property; she headed judicial investigation teams, she served in the National Human Rights Commission; and she has been vocal about education for children. Keeping all of these in my mind, I draw her attention to the issue of reservation of seats for women in the legislatures in India. “Once I was very much against reservation of any sort. But, now I have changed my views,” justice Seth says. She sounds hopeful when she says that “women have really come up”. Still, “there is need for reservation for women in the legislatures, as that will help in the long run,” she feels.

But won't such reservation be counter-productive, I ask. She disagrees. To explain her point she tells me about her experiences while working as part of the Multiple Action Research Group. “In large parts of north India, like in Haryana, girls and women are treated shabbily. But with the reservation for women in the panchayats, the awareness is increasing. Initially, the women were not told about dates of the panchayat meetings. Even if they were told, it was at the last minute. But then the women resolved that they need to take charge”. So gradually, the male domination was countered, she says. “And I am sure that things will change for better if reservation for women is extended to the Assemblies and the Parliament,” the jurist adds.

She then talks about 'death penalty' as a punishment. “Once I was appointed to represent a convicted person who's been condemned to death. I never met that man. But I couldn't sleep. And then the death penalty was confirmed by the High Court...” she pauses. I don't say anything. “I am against 'death penalty' It doesn't serve the purpose. The convicted person suffers much more if kept alive,” she adds. I tell her about the overwhelming sentiment about people in India about what should be done to the captured terrorists from Pakistan. “Even then, I am against 'death penalty',” the former judge affirms.

Referring to the reported atrocities unleashed by the extra-judicial khap panchayats, I ask her how can a girl child, in such a setting, be made aware of her rights. “Education is the key. Children must be made aware about the evil of caste discriminations and the need for gender equality. As they will grow up, these children will assert their rights and carry forward the values of liberal democracy,” she says. “Today, the focus is only on making money. Our children must be told about the need to be humane. Money is not everything,” justice Seth adds. And she hopes, that her book will play a role in achieving this. “I've told my publishers Penguin Group to come up with the Hindi and other regional language versions of this book”.

The last page of the book is illustrated by her granddaughter Nandini showing happy children holding our national flag. Certainly, it was “a happy experience across the generations” to come up with such an enlightening book. There is also a poem on the last page written by justice Seth. As I quietly read it, she tells me how her elder son ((acclaimed author Vikram Seth) has also been part of her writings. “Vikram helped by changing the language of that poem,” she says. “Also, he had edited the last quarter of my autobiography, On Balance, which was published in December 2003”.

Sitting in a spacious hall of the hotel with dim lights shining on her face, justice Seth looks happy to share her views. “One has to be honest while writing an autobiography. When I wrote mine, thinking that I must write something for my granddaughter, I didn't avoid any uncomfortable issue. At 70, you have just nothing to fear,” she says. “One must express thoughts as they come. Don't think about what others are thinking”.

As justice Seth shares anecdotes from her life, I get to know about her days in Kolkata, Patna, England and Delhi. She tells me about her second son Shantum, a peace activist; and her daughter Aradhana, a filmmaker. Getting back to her celebrity writer son, she says, “Fiction writers need their space and time to imagine. Once I returned early from my office (of the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh, in Shimla) around 4 pm. Vikram was then with us at Shimla to write his book. He was little annoyed to see me. 'Why did you come early? All my characters ran away,' he said,” the happy mother recounts with a hearty laughter.

“Vikram studied at the Stanford University. We wanted him to join the World Bank from where he had got an offer. I was scared that he might end up as a penniless writer. But then, he didn't want to be bound by, as he said, 'Chains of gold'. My husband (Prem Seth, who retired as the top boss of the Bata Shoes) and me, we gave all our children all the freedom. And I am happy that we did so. Vikram's book Golden Gate was awarded, but he didn't make money. His novel Suitable Boy worked so well. And then he realised the need to have an agent,” justice Seth says in one stretch.

“Now he's writing A Suitable Girl. But actually he's just talking about it. He hasn't written anything. He's now studying the Indian girls,” she divulges. 'So is it a scoop that Vikram Seth hasn't written anything of the announced book?' I ask in a lighter vain. Justice Seth roars into laughter.

As we talk, she asks me about my background. I tell her about my days in Kolkata, my legal background, the struggles and the despair I went through. She nods in agreement. “There's no money in legal profession for the first five years,” she says. And then she begins to tell me about her early days as the member of the Bar when she was a junior to barrister Sachin Chaudhuri. “When I could manage to approach him through contacts, he said, 'Young lady, you must get married'. I told him that 'I am already married'. Then he said. 'You must become a mother'. I replied, 'I am already a mother'. He then said, 'You must have another child'. I said, 'I already have two kids'. He then gave up. 'Join my chamber then. You'll be a good lawyer', he said,” justice Seth reminisces.

This interview took place on May 12 of 2010 in Pune, India, between 8 pm and 9 pm, local time.