Inviting Justice Leila Seth to lunch at a restaurant of her choice, I got a girlish laugh from Indian law's 84-year-old diminutive dynamo. "Let me check with my restaurant adviser and get back to you," she said. Leila Seth stands five feet and half an inch high, exactly two-and-half inches shorter than her famous, first-born son Vikram Seth. With her prominent bindi, mangal sutra and handloom silk sari, a couple of hours with this tiny personage are like an outing with an erudite but delightfully diverting aunt. In every other respect she stands tall, including, her selection of the elegantly discreet China Kitchen at the Hyatt Regency. It was her daughter, a film production designer, who provided the prompt. But she has an aptitude for homework, whatever the matter in hand.
When former Finance Minister P Chidambaram rang her some days after the gang rape in New Delhi in December 2012 that shook the nation to recommend changes to the law on sexual assault, she quizzed him on who the other members of the committee would be, and its time frame. On his assurance that the former (now late) Chief Justice J S Verma would head the team with ex-solicitor general Gopal Subramaniam as third member - co-jurists she admired for their fierce independence - and they would have exactly a month, she accepted the job. She tells the story of the gruelling 30 days in her new book Talking of Justice: People's Rights in Modern India (Aleph; Rs 500) released in New Delhi last month on her 84th birthday before a full house to a standing ovation - from Soli Sorabjee in the front row to Shobhaa De on Facebook: "She is such a special human being - our Leila!"
Of the 80,000 suggestions the Verma Committee pored over and testimonies it heard before finalising its proposals, several were dropped by the government in the new "rape law" - the Criminal Law (Amendment Act) Act, 2013 as passed by Parliament. Even so, it has divided public opinion: some think it too harsh (seven to 10 years' imprisonment in a radical redefinition of rape), while others consider it lenient. Justice Seth herself is a fervent "abolitionist", that is, against the death penalty ("Who am I to take another's life? Am I God?"). She judges "marital rape" a crime - a married woman's consent for sexual intercourse is necessary at all times and "not merely consent by legal fiction"; she thinks rape is "gender neutral" not "gender specific" - men and members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community can also be victims. Then there is the tricky matter of teenage rape - one of the accused in the New Delhi case was 17 years old. Should under-18s be tried by the Juvenile Justice Board or undergo trial and punishment by regular norms?
In 11 chapters, her slim volume covers women's, children's and prisoners' rights to judicial administration and the Uniform Civil Code, bringing clarity, candour and compassion to each subject - not to speak of nearly 60 years' experience as a lawyer, the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and chief justice of a state high court. Only once does her voice as a mother break out, and it is when discussing the decriminalisation of homosexuality. So long as Section 377 remains on the statute books, given its tortuous recent history, Vikram, first-born of her three children (who came out as gay some years ago) will remain, she says "a criminal, an unapprehended felon". Talking of Justice is a clear-sighted, and often moving, companion to the informed reader's comprehension of Indian law.
In 1954, she was just another Kolkata housewife accompanying her husband Prem Seth, who worked for the Bata shoe company, on a posting to London. She thought she might take a course in Montessori learning to start a nursery school when she returned home. Instead, spotting an advert, she enrolled for law classes. She avoided evening lectures on divorce law at Lincoln's Inn, she said, "for fear of risking divorce at home!" Her second son, now a Buddhist teacher, was a few months old when the rigorous Bar finals approached. Seth thought she would plug the exam but the results caused a stir in the British legal establishment - she became the first woman to top the Bar in its history. The English papers went to town, with pictures of the 27-year-old sari-clad barrister posing with two small boys under the heading: "Mother In Law".
When the family moved to Patna in 1959, a woman lawyer, let alone a female barrister, was a rare sighting at the high court: the only jobs she could find were lowly criminal cases - defending dacoits, rapists and murderers often so poor that she fought their cases free as amicus curiae. Ten years in Patna's legal backwater were replaced by the sexist snobberies of the Calcutta High Court where eminent, wealthy counsels paid male counterparts ten times the fee they paid her merely to endorse her legal opinion as "sound".
If the Patna years shaped her view of the death penalty as a futile curative measure, her Kolkata practice taught her to be "Equal Plus" to earn the regard of her mostly male peers. "I consciously never took on matrimonial and custody cases as these were regarded fit only for women lawyers." It also instilled in her a dislike of the word "eminent". Eventually she made her reputation as a tax lawyer. Till the other day, however, she opposed her publisher David Davidar's description of her as an "eminent jurist" on the book jacket. "But he won," she says with resignation.
Before the garlic prawns arrive, we share half a Peking duck: fine succulent slices hand-rolled in pancakes with greens and dipped in sweet bean or garlic sauce. Amazingly we go through three each! Conversation turns to quotidian concerns: she enjoys gardening and bridge but takes little exercise. Cooking is definitely not her strong suit. "But Vikram is much worse than me… He once tried to make an egg by putting it in a microwave... and was surprised when it exploded," she says with a mother's faux-irritation. After the prawn course laced with mushroom sauce, Justice Seth says she'd like dessert: three scoops of ice cream - caramelised cashew, chocolate and orange - are presented. I ask for a cappuccino.
Is there a contradiction in a small-built woman (she has to ask for cushions to be visible at public appearances), a happy 63-year-old marriage and three children, propagating advanced views on sexuality and judicial reform? A feminist in grandmotherly garb, I ask? "Not a feminist but an equalist. I believe men and women must move together. I was the diffident one, it was my husband who was confident. When I thought I'd fail my Bar exam, he said, 'So what?' Once when I crashed his new car into a gate, he said, 'Get in and try again'."
Escorting her to the car port, a natty little bright red Volkswagen Polo drives up. "It's discernible, you see, and also small and quick." She might as well be describing herself. And maybe she is.