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Remembering Aunty Leila: Opening Justice Seth’s Patna files

New Delhi: Justice Leila Seth, India’s first woman chief justice of a state high court who passed away last week, lives on as “Aunty Leila” for those who spent time with her in Patna.

Seth’s death has opened a floodgate of memories for advocate K D Chatterji who was a little boy when Seth, then a barrister, moved to Patna from Calcutta for her practice in 1959. What endures more than her brilliant career is her love for children, said Chatterji, whose father was Seth’s senior at the time and a family friend.

“Aunty Leila’s presence around us school kids made us so happy. She would host lovely birthday parties at her beautiful ‘White Pillars’ bungalow and, after a trip abroad, she would bring us gifts,” he told PTI.

“Till her last days she retained that kindness and warmth that we had experienced as children. And I believe that is what really set her apart from others in the legal fraternity as judges tend to be aloof and reserved with people, even after retirement,” he said.

A condolence meeting will be held by the entire Patna High Court today (Friday).Seth, who passed away on May 6 at the age of 86 was a pioneer in many ways.

She returned to India after topping the bar examination in London in 1958 to much acclaim in the British press. Because she was already a mother when she passed law, The Star newspaper’s story on her was headlined “Mother in Law,” and was accompanied by a picture of Seth holding her second child Shantum, who was six months old at the time.

Her eldest son, Vikram, now an acclaimed novelist, was born five years earlier, and the youngest, daughter Aradhana, was born in Patna. Shantum went on to become a peace activist and Aradhana a filmmaker.

Seth was the second woman lawyer at Patna High Court when she moved there in 1959. And, as she said in an interview to PTI last year, she “still was the second lawyer” when she left Patna in 1969. The first was the feisty Dharmshila Lal who was her senior. After moving to New Delhi from Patna, she became the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court in the 1970s.

“She never rested on her laurels or basked in her glory,” said Chatterji, who practices at Patna High Court. She had her share of both exclusivity and struggle during her initial days in Patna, he recalls.

“Barristers had a separate lunch room in those days and these two women, both barristers, were the only women practicing in the court,” he said, recalling the bathroom troubles this situation created. “The key to the ladies bathroom would be kept with Dharmshila Lal. She would sometimes not be there, creating a crisis of sorts, an issue that was later resolved.”

US-based biotech scientist, Jaya Ghosh, who grew up in Patna, said many people were sad when Seth and her family left Patna for Delhi.

Seth’s husband, Prem, was the regional manager of Bata, and ‘White Pillars’, their palatial residence given to them courtesy the shoemaking company, was as much talk of the town as the amiable Seths themselves.

“I recall Justice Seth from her time at Patna. I did not know her. But our mother knew her and was very fond of her … Leila Seth and Dharmshila Lal were the only two women barristers but had very different personalities. While Lal came across as an aloof person, Seth was very humble and cordial. She will be missed,” Ghosh said.

Like Ghosh, Navin Kumar, too, left Patna several decades ago but the links of nostalgia are strong and abiding.

“I remember her going to the Patna High Court in her shining Plymouth car from her chamber at the corner of the junction of S P Verma Road and Dak Bungalow Road,” said Kumar, now a doctor based in England.

Seth, who later went on to become the chief justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court who authored ‘Talking of Justice: People’s Rights in Modern India’, had also written a book for children, ‘We the Children of India’, based on the Preamble of the Constitution. She had once said at a literature festival that it was the company of children which kept her active and “young at heart”.

“She really loved children. I have very fond memories of the Seths,” said Kolkata-based photographer Rajiv Soni who remembers birthday parties at ‘White Pillar’.In the PTI interview also Seth had talked about Patna as having a “very special” place in her heart.

And Seth had a special place in many people’s hearts. Close family friend Tehmina Punwani, 61, recalls that Seth took care of her when she was little. Her father Akbar Imam was Seth’s senior at the Patna High Court.

“I used to copy her so much that I went to the same school that she went to. I even used to carry the same bindi pattern (big red one with a black dot below). When I got designated as a senior advocate, she gave me her judge’s gown and coat,” said Punwani.

PTI