Winter 2004
The Mother, the Judge, the Balancer 

by Anjana Basu

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On Balance. An Autobiography.
By Leila Seth. 
Penguin India. Rs 495/-

You have an old aunt who has lived a full life. She is articulate, still lively and manages to make herself the centre of attention at most of the cocktail parties. Dressed in her kanjeevaram saris, elegant and commanding, you find her a pleasure to sit and listen to. The stories of her life slip easily out of her, tales of marriages made and broken, what she liked to eat when she went to school, how her husband Premo wore his cream silk shirt and cream Irish linen trousers, nothing to shake you out of our placid belief that old ladies like holding court. After all, this is what an old lady is supposed to be like, pleasant and garrulous, a book of advice and old adages in motion. You listen to it all placidly and comfortably and forget it before you have even walk out of the door. "It's only Leila Auntie." She married well, she brought up her children--incidentally, they are brilliant, those children--and she had a distinguished career. This is what you expect. 

No, this is not how it begins, it can't be, this gracious aunt at an eternal cocktail party exchanging stories. Leila Auntie, who talks and sounds like a Leila Auntie, is, depending on your priorities, the mother of Vikram Seth and the first woman Chief Justice of an Indian State. Justice Leila Seth, a woman who certainly lived in those interesting times that the Chinese curse you with. Who charted new courses in the Indian Penal Code--forget the fact that her son wrote the book which was compared to Thackeray before it was printed. 

Perhaps some of it has to do with the reason why people write autobio- graphies. There are those like Pepys who are compulsive diary writers. They sit down at their tables every day and jot down every little detail of their lives. Several centuries later it provides people with an insightful historical document of how people used to live in a bygone era, and all the commas and semicolons are put in place and the sentences full stopped. That is one kind of autobiography, the kind that contributes to the history and culture of our time.

Then there is the kind when an Agatha Christie sits down to document her life and we look for clues into her genius. What kind of life forges a murder mystery writer beyond compare? Or, for that matter, what happened in that missing fortnight of her life? Not that any writer puts his or her life entirely on display. Even the best autobiographies are just a kind of sharing of confidences, in an incomplete fashion. A kind of romance or a life filled with adventure can of course compensate for an incomplete meeting of minds. Which is why we pore over the ghost-written autobiographies of film stars with eagerness, hoping to find some trace of that charisma we admire on screen. 

Leila Seth's autobiography, on the face of it, falls into the second category. At seventy, the winter years of a full life, she decided to write a memoir. "Over the years, several young women have asked me what it was like when I started to practice law in 1959 and that too in a place like Bihar." Parents who never held down a nine-to-five job asked her how she brought up three children so successfully. Still others wanted to know how she balanced her life and her work. In the end, the autobiography was written after a suggestion from Penguin editor David Davidar who came up to read Vikram's Seth's manuscript of A Suitable Boy after a month of enforced contemplation with a leg in a plaster cast. Once completed, Vikram Seth edited the book and put it into the form in which it was published. 

Leila Seth's book begins with a quotation from Lytton Strachey: "It is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to live one." Her threefold aim is immediately discernible. She begins to illustrate the balancing act that her life has been by telling us her story. From the beginning it was different. Seventy-three years ago, when she was born, few Indian parents would have rejoiced at the birth of a daughter. Her parents, however, were delighted and spent a lot of time choosing her name, making sure she had the one best suited to her--Leila, 'the playful one.'

Leila's life then begins to unfold, a series of events that smoothly dovetail into each other. "I was a docile and submissive child brought up in my mother's shadow." The docile child tells us stories about her uncles and aunts, their interactions with each other, divorcing cousins, a school ruled by Irish nuns, a sudden landslide in the Darjeeling where she lived as a child. This is any aunt's life as she would tell it, sitting by you and waxing eloquent at the end of a party. You sit and listen indulgently, because you are fond of the aunt.

As aunts do, she rambles on about old memories. The clothes fresh and crisp worn to a Holi celebration. Her meeting with Premo and the arranging of their marriage--detailed with an eye to the young girls who might be listening to her. Occasionally in the middle of this, the seeker after meaning picks up a trace of her son, a scene from A Suitable Boy, perhaps. Premo takes a job in the Bata Shoe Company in Batanagar and more A Suitable Boy thoughts follow. "Ah, so this is why he went into such detail about Batanagar and shoe- making!" We even learn that the phrase 'a suitable boy' was taken from the lips of Vikram's grandmother who was hunting for a husband for Leila. Consequently, the reader with literary learnings may tend to stray into Vikram Seth trivia, quite ignoring Leila Seth as a person.

The ordinary person at the cocktail party, on the other hand, would possibly be quite thrilled to discover how adept she is at the art of balance, juggling three brilliant children and a demanding career. If Auntie Leila can do it, so can I, one thinks. Of course, everyone is definitely not an Auntie Leila. This is a friendly book written by a woman of great personality who has the knack of making everything she does seem so effortlessly smooth that the book glides pleasantly by. Only at the end do you really wonder why you spent so much time listening to your aunt gossip, because nothing momentous really happened. Life went on as life does, with its incidental tragedies, its ups and downs.

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. She is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)