Madhu Trehan remembers Leila Seth (1930 – 2017)

Justice Leila Seth, the first woman judge on the Delhi high court and the first woman chief justice of a high court who recently passed away on May 5.

WrittenBy:Madhu Trehan
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If I feel such a depth of sadness about Leila Seth leaving her body, I cannot fathom what her close-knit, adoring husband and children are going through. A few snippets of my many rich experiences with her.


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* I had invited Leila to the screening of Deepa Mehta’s film Anatomy of Violence, which is about Jyoti Singh’s rape on December 16, 2012. The screening was in the living room of Deepa’s brother’s home and there is a rather steep staircase she would have to climb. I had brought along a chair from home in case she needed to be carried up. There was no need. Leila was fit and agile enough to negotiate the steps. It was her spirit that motivated her body. More than that, her contribution to the discussion afterwards kept the small group spellbound.

* At the launch of my book Tehelka as Metaphor – Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth, Leila was game enough to participate in reading passages from my book while sitting in the audience. It was a gift.

* I was attending a Buddhist meditation session led by her son Shantum. I was going through a particularly bad time in my life. Leila understood and she spontaneously just hugged me and held me for a long, really long time. What she gifted me that evening has never left my inner consciousness.

* I called Leila numerous times to get her views on social and legal issues and she was always clear, so clued in and fearless. But, she always pointed out that to awaken men into a more enlightened and sensitive space on gender issues, one should work with them not against them.

* Leila was the first woman judge. There were no toilets designated for women. She had to walk past men standing at urinals. In many instances, she had to face gender insensitive remarks and treatment. But, she dealt with all of it with equanimity, not by throwing tantrums.

* The depth and width of the woman is exemplified in all three of her children. The choices they made in their careers showed she gave them the awareness of their freedom. Vikram Seth, the renowned poet, author, singer, is a legend. It was Vikram’s sexual orientation that partially catalysed Leila’s outspoken fight against Section 377. Aradhana, is a film director, photographer and artist. Shantum is a Buddhist practitioner, an ordained teacher (Dharmacharya) in the Zen tradition of the Vietnamese Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. This is an unusual family: in their talent, engagement with their surroundings and generosity in friendships. I cannot help but feel that Leila Seth lives on in all of them.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @madhutrehan


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