Leila Seth on Dowry, Inheritance and Gay Marriages

He told her to get married instead of a career.

She said she’s already married.

He told her to get a child instead of a career.

She said she already has a child.

Get two children.

I already have two children.


That’s when Sachin Chaudhary, the best lawyer in India hired Leila Seth who became the first woman to top the Bar examinations in London in 1957, the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and the first woman to become chief justice of a state in India.


She was born in 1930 and her mother barely had money to pay for her school or her semi-arranged marriage. Her husband didn’t demand dowry. For their wedding they had vanilla ice cream and salted cashews.


“You don’t need much in life,” says Seth who has been married for 64 years now.


Her marriage ensured that she went to London to study law. And so, in a way, it was her marriage, her husband’s lack of dowry demand, which started the career of the pint-sized and dainty 84-year-old.


With her entry into a profession, which was a male preserve, Leila Seth has clearly taken many gender issues headlong. Two of them are dowry and inheritance that she spoke about at the recent TEDxGatewayWomen talk in Mumbai.


“Demand inheritance, not dowry,” Seth said. “Inheritance not dowry should be your mantra.”


She said that despite the change in succession laws in 1956, which gave daughters and sons equally from father’s self-acquired and ancestral property, things didn’t change, as sisters did not want to spoil their relationship with their brothers. Even the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act changed things little on the ground level as it stopped dowry display but didn’t stop dowry demands.


Therefore, brothers, fathers and husbands should ensure that daughters get their share.


“Do the legal not illegal thing,” she says. “Don’t let your daughters down.”


As Indians read in delight the matrimonial ad of Harish Iyer, as mother of the prominent gay author Vikram Seth, Seth had some charming opinions.


“If you don’t like it, it is okay,” she said. “But don’t criminalise it. If they are consenting adults, have the compassion to understand their choice. In my autobiography (On Balance) too, there’s a paragraph on how I was a bit surprised when my son (celebrated author Vikram Seth) told me he was bisexual, because I didn’t know about such things. Once I did, I accepted it.”


She urges parents to allow their children space, “Only then will they understand their full potential.”


Which is why, she considers Justice Ajit Prakash Shah’s landmark verdict of 2009 that overturned the 150-year-old Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises sexual activities ‘against the order of nature’, including homosexual acts, as “a very compassionate judgment”.


Here’s to more Leila Seth’s. May your tribe increase.