Review: The Lives of Freda by Andrew Whitehead
Freda Bedi lived a remarkable life, and it’s impossible to not be affected by her story.
The Lives of Freda, a biography about the extraordinary life of Freda Bedi, was launched at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai on the 19th of March 2019. The guest of honour, apart from the author Andrew Whitehead, was Kabir Bedi, son of Freda Bedi, and a successful star in his own right. The two-hour long ceremony featured talks by both Kabir Bedi and Andrew Whitehead, and an enthusiastic question-answer session with the students of the college, some of whom were a part of the panel on the stage, as they had read the book in its entirety.
When I was handed the book to read about ten days ago, I was a little dubious. I am not fond of biographies, preferring memoirs instead. But from the moment I began reading about Freda Bedi, I was hooked. She was an amazing woman who steadfastly wandered her own path, smashing boundaries and stereotypes along the way. She lived a remarkable life, and it’s impossible to not be affected by her story.
It’s a story that Whitehead weaves with skill and mastery; using anecdotes from family members, letters, photographs, and documents, conversations with friends and family, and recordings that Freda made, there is a sensation of a number of skeins being gathered together to create a rich and telling portrayal of an extraordinary woman.
Freda Bedi was born Freda Houlston in a flat above her father’s shop in Derby, England in 1911. She knew profound loss in her childhood when her father was killed in the First World War in 1918. Although the family had been Christian, her mother renounced religion when her father was killed. In two years she had remarried, and Freda and her brother were raised by her mother and her stepfather.
Freda went on to study in St Hugh’s College in Oxford University; while there she met a handsome Indian Sikh named Baba Pyare Lal (BPL) Bedi. They fell in love, and Freda faced a good deal of censure for loving an Indian man, although she also had a support group in Oxford, friends with whom she communicated for the rest of her life. Whilst at Oxford, Freda was influenced by BPL’s political leanings (he was a communist) and she became a staunch leftist; she attended meetings of the Oxford Majlis, where Indian students gathered, and it was here that she became an opponent of the Empire.
BPL and Freda married at the Oxford Registry Office in 1933. Shortly after this, they moved to Berlin, Germany, where their first child was born. From the moment Freda Houlston became Freda Bedi, she embraced her new identity with eagerness and enthusiasm, even going so far as to dress in a saree as often as she could. In a letter to her mother-in-law, Freda assures her that she is “very fond of wearing the saree”. It wasn’t just in this overt way that Freda embraced her husband’s nationality and culture; it was a shift in her mind. She wasn’t a British national who identified as an Indian; as far as she was concerned, she was Indian, and that never changed.
After a year in Berlin, the little family sailed to India in 1934, and Freda met her husband’s family and extended family for the first time. Welcomed unreservedly by her mother-in-law, she must have felt a sense of ease as she settled into life in India at long last. ‘I was taken spontaneously as a new and very interesting daughter of the family’, wrote Freda. Her mother-in-law, known as Bhabooji, began teaching her to speak Punjabi, and the entire extended family made Freda feel very welcome. Eventually, they moved to Lahore, where both husband and wife taught, although it was Freda who found regular employment teaching in a women’s college. She was also pregnant again and gave birth to another son. She wrote unabashedly about her love for India. ‘I feel very happy with the Indian people. The more I see of India, the more I realise that I was not built to live in the West.’ Unfortunately, her second child did not live to see his first birthday.
Freda and her husband threw themselves into their work, and into the founding of a journal called Contemporary India, ‘a national quarterly’ that published substantial and rigorously researched articles about India. Freda was the managing editor, while BPL was the editor. It was an ambitious project with a number of influential guest contributors and conducted on a scale which won them acclaim amongst university circles and Indian journalists. Although celebrated, the journal never achieved financial stability, and eventually folded. They eventually launched another political paper called Monday Mornings, a weekly that hit the newsstands on Monday mornings, and eventually became ‘a serious irritant to the authorities’ because of its anti-fascist and anti-British character. It survived for eighteen months but eventually folded. Freda also wrote a column entitled ‘From a Woman’s Window’ for The Tribune, Lahore’s main nationalist daily. It was a unique column written by a woman for women and that dealt with all the things that weren’t being published in a newspaper at the time, such as pregnancy, women’s welfare, and breastfeeding, to name a few. Some years later, she also reported firsthand on the Bengal famine, the most terrible of India’s wartime tragedies.
By the time the second world war erupted, both the Bedis were arrested and imprisoned – BPL for being a communist and for disrupting military recruitment, and Freda because she publicly defied the Emergency wartime regulations, becoming a Satyagrahi with Mahatma Gandhi’s permission. While BPL was imprisoned for several months, Freda was imprisoned for three months in a Lahore jail. She was the first English woman to offer satyagraha in the civil disobedience campaign.
Partition was tough on the Bedis because they had to lose their beloved Lahore address; they moved to Kashmir, and that was where their third child, another son, was born. BPL and Freda worked alongside Sheikh Abdullah, a progressive nationalist whose ideas of a new Kashmir aligned with their own, and they were happy to lend him their support. Freda even enrolled in a left-wing women’s militia; there are photographs of her marching with her gun in her hands as a member of the Women’s Self Defence Corps in 1948. A fourth child followed a few years after their move to Kashmir, a daughter this time.
In the fifties, Freda went on a working visit to Myanmar, where she encountered Buddhism for the first time. The experience left her shaken; she was profoundly affected by the Buddhist faith. As thousands of Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama to India in the wake of China’s occupation of Tibet, Freda persuaded Jawaharlal Nehru to allow her to work for the betterment of the refugees’ lives. She set up a school for young llamas and was determined to seek funds from people she knew back in the UK; many people sent contributions and the school went from strength to strength.
Freda followed her spiritual calling by becoming a Tibetan Buddhist nun, becoming the first woman in Tibetan tradition to achieve full ordination, and taking the name Sister Palmo. She persuaded her guru to reach out to new devotees and undertook a visit to the west with him in 1974; the trip lasted some months and it was because of this that the seeds of Tibetan Buddhism spread to Europe and the United States.
Freda died in 1977 in India at the age of sixty-six; she died in Delhi, holding an Indian passport, and after having spent 2/3 of her life in India. She broke barriers and transcended boundaries and bridged societal chasms and remained, until the very end, stoically and utterly herself. It was a pleasure to read this extraordinary book, and I encourage you to do the same.