Gussie's Reviews > On Balance

On Balance by Leila Seth
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's review
Apr 14, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: favourites
Recommended for: Vikram Seth fans, lawyers or wannabe ones, anyone who values intellect
Read from March 31 to April 14, 2012

Some books march uninvited into the room tooting their own horn. They bellow loudly and rhetorically about their greatness while all you are trying to do is enjoy a horrendously sappy Hindi movie or search for that lost bookmark that you had stolen from a friend. In between the sounds of loud cymbal clashing, the book will boast that the New York Times called it "a real tour de force" or a "prophetic novel celebrating the triumph of righteous dissidence". If you stay adamant, the book will play dirty and remind you in an admonitory tone that it deals with that dreadful Holocaust or Pol Pot's Cambodia or some remote place in occupied Palestine and the injustices committed by the Israeli troops. So, if you are not interested in THAT, you must be a Very Bad Person.

Other books, meanwhile, tiptoe into the room. You don't even realise their presence until they gently murmur in your ear to please pass the popcorn. More often than not, such books wear strangely dull outfits. You know, the kind of clothes that some people wear hoping that they would not be noticed. No bright colours, shiny stars, cute unicorns or strange cover fonts for them. It's a bit like the 11-year old Harry Potter when he first joined school. Famous and very special but ridiculously modest and self-deprecating.

On Balance is the Harry-Potter-in-his-first-year-at-Hogwarts kind of book. It is not at all what I had expected it to be like. Two weeks ago, if someone had asked me to read a 500-page autobiography, I would have run away like a gazelle attacked at a watering hole. However, On Balance is much more that just a meandering autobiography. Any book that made me up stay up all night to read it (something that I hadn't done for the past couple of years) deserves a 5/5 rating, especially if it's non-fiction.

The first time I read about Leila Seth in some trivia book (there was the usual question about her being India's first woman Chief Justice of a state), my mind immediately squealed, "Ooooh! Vikram Seth's mother!" On the other hand, the first time I showed my father my signed copy of The Golden Gate, he looked at the author's name and said, "Isn't this man Justice Leila Seth's son?" Perhaps a certain generation will always think of Vikram Seth in those terms. After reading this book, I believe that so will I.

Leila Seth is not just the mother of one of the most brilliant writers of our times. Yeah, sure, she has a star kid but she also has a remarkable success story of her own - first woman judge of the Delhi High Court, first woman Chief Justice of a State, and the first woman to top the Bar examinations in London.

I mean, really wow. Leila Seth can really sneak up on you and scribble out a book that you cannot (or do not want to) put down. In a largely male-dominated profession (especially in her times), she held her own and refused to be typecast by not fighting only women's cases. Instead, she competed with her male colleagues and fought all kinds of cases right from criminal ones to those dealing with tax matters, constitutional law and litigation. The book also gives a very interesting account of the legal profession. It not only provides insights into the prevalent gender bias but also talks about the painfully slow-paced Indian courts, increasing corruption in judiciary, and the rampant favouritism in certain spheres.

Besides her career, Ms Seth talks about her family, the loss of a child, interesting travels, quirky habits, gardening, arbitration and law commission and so on. It is evident that taking care of a family and establishing a successful career must have been difficult for her, particularly in an age when working women were incredibly rare. (There is a hilarious anecdote about lots of people from rural Haryana on a trip to Delhi especially visiting the courtroom because they wanted to goggle at her, a female judge.) However, she managed not only to have a happy married life and raise three ridiculously talented children but also rose to one of the highest positions in her career.

I love the fact that she has compiled this book with wrenching honesty right from talking about the bisexuality of Vikram Seth to the implication of her husband on false charges, and her peacenik son, Shantum's experiments with magic mushrooms and activism as well as his short stay in jail. The book is also peppered with many interesting vignettes. There is the funny but understandable concern of a mother whose colleagues at the Delhi High Court would badger her about her children "not settling down", and the hilarious dismissal of Vikram Seth by their family driver as someone who was "reading and writing and sleeping and eating and living off his parents." And somehow, the insane amount of intelligence and the wonderfully unconventional life paths of the Seth siblings forcefully remind me of Salinger's Glass family.

This is the kind of rare autobiography that you would want to read again. I do not say that it is a great masterpiece of literature. Rather, it is about a life well-lived and it is always good to read about something like that, isn't it?
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Gayatri This should be the foreword of the book. Best review ever! Received the confirmation of delivery from Flipkart 5 seconds after I finished reading it!

message 2: by Gussie (last edited Apr 16, 2012 02:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gussie Haha, oh no, it can never be the foreword! The actual one is by Vikram Seth and even if he had only written "Squawk!" and nothing more, I'd have still considered it the best written foreword ever. :P

Read the book and then we will gush over it. :D

Gayatri LOL!'Squawk' is adorable. Okay I will settle for a tiny part of it being published as the blurb on the back! :-)

Gussie Hahaha! Maybe someday when I am super famous and as pompous as Percy Weasley, I shall write to the Seths and ask them to include it as a blurb on the back. :P

message 5: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Laird What a stupendous review: analytical yet personal and conveying the worth of a life well lived, of conspicuous achievement and it seems a genuinely warm person - like yourself, I'd venture.

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