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While Reading Late Justice Leila Seth’s Autobiography, I Could Feel Her Presence Around Me

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As a student of political science, I bought “On Balance: An Autobiography” by Leila Seth out of curiosity about the Indian judiciary. I was fascinated by late Justice Leila Seth, the first woman Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court and mother to three wonderfully accomplished children — renowned author Vikram Seth, Buddhist teacher Shantum Seth and artist and filmmaker Aradhana Seth.

A year ago, I read an article published in 2014, where Justice Leila Seth publicly condemned Section 377 and talked about coming to terms with her eldest son Vikram’s homosexuality. That’s when I decided that I wanted to know more about her journey. I was absolutely certain that there was more to this woman.

Justice Seth started writing her autobiography after she met with an accident and ended up with multiple fractures. She dedicates the book to her husband Premo and her granddaughters Nandini and Anamika. The first chapter, titled ‘Mother Tongue’, starts with her birth and the happiness in the family. She talks about how progressive her parents were and how they welcomed her into this world in the early 1900s. This chapter is a truly a reader’s delight. She recalls how her childhood days spent with her parents were the happiest. She also shares the details of her life in boarding school and the letters written to her parents. She then goes on to narrate the tragic details of her father’s death while she was still in school and how it affected her family. She further acknowledges her mother’s efforts in raising her and her two brothers to develop into independent individuals with strong values.

While reading about her childhood, it seemed to me that she wasn’t very focused or had a clear vision for herself. She writes about enjoying learning, her love for literature and getting married to her husband Premo.

Justice Seth has written extensively about her husband Premo and the reader can see the significant role her husband played in her life. She writes about him being an orphan and how extraordinarily hardworking he was. As the book progresses, it is interesting to know that she appeared for the Bar Council Exam while she was in the UK with her husband for three years and won a gold medal for securing the first place.

She then talks about coming back to India and the challenges and discrimination that she had to face for years as a lawyer with a no-nonsense attitude. She writes about working harder and constantly trying to strike a balance between her professional life and her role as a mother and a wife, striving to be successful in every role she played. Her dedication is remarkable. She writes about instilling values in her children and giving them space to make their choices. She writes about her assignments as a lawyer and as the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court followed by being the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court and her years and post-retirement.

I was enamoured with her comfort during her husband’s transfers and one can understand how change has been an essential part of her growth. While reading Justice Leila Seth’s autobiography, I could feel her presence around me, as if she was sitting next to me and narrating her life. I always had mixed feelings of happiness, grief, and pride while reading her journey. To me, this autobiography is not only about Leila Seth but about her and her husband. It is a journey of two progressive people who stood with each other when tested by adversities, who spent most of their income on the education of their children, who were ambitious, but also with strong values.

No wonder she dedicated the book to her husband Premo. From what I understand, she went with the flow all her life with sincerity and complete dedication in all the roles she played. What I admire the most is not only her ability to strike a balance, but also to be thoughtful and to have a clear sense of self.

This is a story of the first woman Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, yet a story of a woman who, like many middle-class women, thought about her work, her husband and her family. It is about how she would make ends meet, how she tried to give the best education to her children, how she fulfilled expectations at her workplace as a first woman. She definitely had to work hard to prove herself and that reflected in her thoughtful judgements.

Reading this autobiography has been a one-week journey I will cherish. This is one of those books that makes you tearful and overwhelmed and I have only grown to respect strength above power. As a 19-year-old, I developed an instant connection with Justice Leila Seth. She gives me the inspiration to lead a life with integrity and dignity and definitely never take my freedom for granted.

Concluding this review with my favourite excerpt from this book in her own immortal words that had a profound influence on me:

“But then I force myself to remember that a country is great or a world is livable not because it has a few great people but a large number of good people doing their own work diligently and well and in the spirit of service. To aspire to be good to the best of one’s ability is, if not heroic, at least honourable. Justice Felix Frankfurter said: ‘No office in the land is more important than being a good citizen.’ (I tell myself this as I sit through certain committee meetings.) It is enough if the friendly postman delivers the mail promptly, the policeman is fair and impartial, and the politician acts honestly. As Romola Lahiry wrote in my autograph book when I was sixteen:

Small service is true service while it lasts.
Of Friends, however humble, scorn not one,
The daisy by the shadow that it casts,
Shelters the lingering dew-drop from the sun.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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