Profile with Menaka Guruswamy

Menaka Guruswamy (India & University 1998) is currently an advocate at her own practice in New Delhi, India. Since her time at Oxford, Ms Guruswamy has worked at a law firm in New York and as a Human Rights Consultant to the United Nations, taught at the New York University School of Law, and practiced law for the Office of the Attorney General of India. She holds an LLM from Harvard Law School, a BCL from the University of Oxford, and a BA and LLB from the National Law School of India University.

Rhodes Project: What is your favourite thing to do in Delhi?

Menaka Guruswamy: I have to say walking through the city in early winter. November. The sun is perfect, and it can be a glorious city. There are beautiful monuments, and just walking past some of those monuments reminds me of why I came back home.

Rhodes Project: Why did you come back home?

Menaka Guruswamy: Because my heart is in constitutional law - Indian constitutional law. Most of my practice, the practice I care most deeply about, is constitutional rights.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Menaka Guruswamy: I worked for the Attorney General of India. I had two options: I could have become a professional chess player, or I could have made this commitment and become a lawyer. I think I was twenty-one years old when I went to work for him, and it was hilarious. Everyone around me was four times my age, or three times my age. Women were just beginning to “come out” as lawyers, as litigators, and he was a charming old barrister, and it was my first job.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Menaka Guruswamy:  It was a book called A Free Man, written by a young friend of mine called Aman Sethi. He follows a couple of working-class men in the city of Delhi, men who come to Delhi to find a future from different parts of the country. What’s interesting about the book is that it’s not a book of trying to save a bunch of people. I think it’s a book about how complex the human spirit is.

Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you want to be later in life?

Menaka Guruswamy: A litigator.

Rhodes Project: You knew it early on?

Menaka Guruswamy: I had two aspirations, I must correct myself. I wanted to be a backup singer to Madonna. I just knew I wanted to do this, and at some point, my cousins said to me, “But you don’t have any talent.” And they thought my dancing was kind of sketchy. And so I stuck to the first plan, which was to become a litigator.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?

Menaka Guruswamy: Definitely, every once in a while, being a part of justice. Undeniably so. Those moments are few, but they are there, and I think that every time that it happens, you don’t forget it.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job now?

Menaka Guruswamy: Not being a part of justice.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman in your field?

Menaka Guruswamy: Chase your dreams. I think the law is a wonderful profession, but I think in India as a woman, and as a woman lawyer, you have to listen to your heart and say that you will get there. Because everything around you says that you can’t. But times are changing, things are changing, and there are wonderful young women who just want to have their piece of the courtroom.

Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with one female historical figure, who would it be and why?

Menaka Guruswamy: Historical? You mean, not Angelina Jolie? Jokes apart, I find it fascinating that there are folks out there who will make their fortune doing popular mainstream, work in the world of popular culture and often partake of extremely superficial lives, but amid all the superficial trappings of that world, will have a commitment to people who don’t have voices.

Seriously though, Cornelia Sorabjee, the first Indian woman lawyer. She had to wait many many years before she was formally admitted to practice. At the time only men could be admitted to the bar. Ironically, she was also the first woman ever to read law at Oxford. I have so many questions for her. In some ways, I am here today because she chose to insist that a woman must be able to study and practice law.

Rhodes Project: What do you do for you?

Menaka Guruswamy: I travel. I run.

Rhodes Project: Any place in particular?

Menaka Guruswamy: All places. My work also makes me travel. I do some work up in South Sudan, I work up in Nepal, but I still love seeing new parts of the world. And so I have great favorites. Vienna, Cape Town, Tokyo are great favorites. New York, of course, having lived there for so many years. It feels like being back home whenever I am in New York. Ladakh, where the mountains are in India, is truly special. This country is a beautiful country when we can get out there and see some of it.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Menaka Guruswamy:  Family, loved ones, and the law.

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