Andrew Whitehead has brought to life, the enigma, the wonder and the woman of substance, who was Freda Bedi, over four decades after her death. Perhaps, it is a good time for the publication of this wonderful work, “The Lives of Freda,” which is an ode to her achievements, her character, her persona and her charisma, which has come alive before it would have got lost in the annals of time. A heart-felt thanks to Whitehead, a former BBC India correspondent, for bringing her extraordinary life to us.
Whitehead’s earlier book was about the communist movement during the period of the first and second world war. His research took him to Kashmir as well, where there was a strong communist movement against the Kashmiri royalty during that period. Here, he came across numerous references to, and even some pictures of a tall British lady who was very actively involved with the movement and the Kashmiris. A British lady being so closely involved with the local people was unheard of at the time, but that is exactly what Freda Bedi was all about. She scorned at convention, scoffed at imperialism and believed in following her calling, in the process being a pioneer and breaking many glass ceilings on the way.
Born in Derby in 1911, Freda was brought up in an orthodox Christian family. She went on to study at Oxford in 1929 when there were only a few seats for women scholars, and later, was the first Oxford educated British lady to marry an Indian. Such boundaries were not crossed at the time but she was taken in by the charms of Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, a dashing young Panjabi from India, whose communist philosophy and energy appealed to her young mind, and she fell in love with him. Their common interests and beliefs, and their love for each other blossomed and in 1933 they were married. She was courageous and brave and barriers of religion, race, ethnicity and color dissolved as she wholeheartedly donned a new avatar and joined the freedom movement in India with her husband. Initially in Lahore, despite being an Englishwoman, she fought against the imperialist forces, wrote about the freedom struggle and even went to Lahore jail at one time for being one of Gandhiji’s supporters. Both, she and her husband, had strong beliefs of equality for all and Freda also enrolled as a member of the Women’s Militia in Kashmir, when her husband and she were working closely with Sheikh Abdullah.
There is another, very humanitarian side to this amazing and unique lady. She used to write articles for The Tribune which was initially located in Lahore. In 1943, she was asked to cover the Bengal Famine for which she travelled deep into the interiors of Bengal. She was appalled at the level of hunger and starvation despite there not being a shortage of food. She said that food was available but it was hoarded resulting in it being so expensive that most people could not buy it. She also spent a lot of time in Assam during the exodus of the Tibetans from Tibet when the Dalai Lama had to escape in 1959. Many Tibetans died of illness and poor health as they were not used to the hot and humid weather. She would nurse them and take care of them, and persuaded Jawarharlal Nehru to give her a role in coordinating efforts for settlement of refugees. She set up the Young Lamas Home School in Delhi in 1961 and it was during her close association with the Tibetans that she was drawn to Buddhism.
On a UN mission to Burma (now Myanmar) she met some Buddhist monks where she first discovered her interest in spirituality and she learnt meditation with these masters. Later, her work with the Tibetans brought her closer to Buddhism and she felt she had found her calling. In 1966, she was ordained as a nun by the 16th Karmapa Lama in Sikkim, a decision she chose not to share with her children. Her younger son, Kabir Bedi , who later went on to become a famous Bollywood and Italian TV personality, recalls his sense of betrayal at the fact that she had not discussed her decision with him. He knew of her interest in Buddhism and even attended some meditation workshops with her, but suddenly seeing his mother in maroon robes and a shorn head, came to him as a shock. Known now as Sister Palmo, she became possibly the first woman to have the highest level of initiation in Buddhism.
Freda had already come a long way. From an orthodox Christian family in England, she left Christianity to become a communist. From there, she absorbed the Indian way of life after her marriage, like a fish takes to water and was truly an Indian at heart. She always dressed in sarees or salwar kameez, carried an Indian passport and thought of herself as an Indian. In fact, she was quite upset when Indira Gandhi gave her an award for her contribution to India as a foreigner, because she did not think of herself as one. She loved India, she loved the people and she loved being Indian. In a letter to her son, Kabir, she describes how she had to go from place to place to hide from the police in Kashmir when he was still a very small boy, and she would have him strapped to her and take him wherever she went. At this time, she was moved by the generosity and kindness of people who would hide her despite great risk to themselves and help her get some food so that she could look after herself and her baby.
Her humanitarian work and tireless efforts for the causes she espoused made her a memorable figure who had no need for labels of identity of class, skin, color, race or position because they meant nothing to her. She played numerous roles – mother, student, wife, revolutionary, political worker, humanitarian, writer, social worker, grand-mother, nun – and she did justice to each and every one of them. In a world today when we are struggling to balance our minimal roles in comparison, we remember her as a beacon of light, and appreciate and remember the contribution of a strong and courageous woman whose life is a life well lived and an example to follow.
Andrew Whitehead has brought to life, the enigma, the wonder and the woman of substance, who was Freda Bedi, over four decades after her death. Perhaps, it is a good time for the publication of this wonderful work, “The Lives of Freda,” which is an ode to her achievements, her character, her persona and her charisma, which has come alive bef
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