THE LIVES OF FREDA: THE BLOG
For those of you who read Bengali, he's a link to an article about Freda Bedi in the leading Calcutta paper Ananda Bazar Patrika. The headline refers to Freda as the first western woman to take ordination within Tibetan Buddhism:
That's the headline of a piece in today's Times of India about Freda, and my biography of her. It's written by the paper's London correspondent, Naomi Canton. As well as talking to me, she also spoke to Kabir Bedi about his mother.
The article uses this photograph of Freda - taken in the summer of 1947 when she made her first trip back to her home city of Derby for fourteen years.
And the boy in her arms? Kabir Bedi of course - who was born in Lahore in January 1946 so would at this time have been about eighteen months old.
Freda Bedi never came back to make her home in Derby after she headed to Oxford University. But Derby kept a watchful interest in her - and on occasions she wrote for the city's daily papers.
News took a while to travel back then. By the time the Derby Evening Telegraph put on its front page news of Freda's imprisonment in Lahore in 1941, her sentence was almost over.
A few years later, it was Freda's mum who was making the news. She had received a surprise invitation to meet independent India's new prime minister - and Freda's friend - Jawaharlal Nehru.
'Mrs Swan's proudest moment came when [Nehru] stopped at her table and shook hands with her.' This is from the city's morning paper, the Derby Daily Telegraph, on 25th October 1948:
So pleased that The Hindu has published this piece in its Sunday magazine - not least because, back in the 1930s, the then editor of the paper, Rangaswami Iyengar, championed the right of Freda and her Punjabi boyfriend to marry. In recognition of that, the couple named their first child Ranga.
And here's the link to the piece: https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/united-colours-of-freda-bedi/article26280964.ece
It's so fitting that the Tribune, the paper that Freda Bedi used to write for, has done a big spread on her and the biography being published in the next few days.
Freda had a path-breaking weekly column at one time entitled 'From a Woman's Window' - a very early journalistic endeavour by a woman for women and often addressing gender-specific issues. The Tribune also sent Freda to Bengal in December 1943 to report on the calamitous famine there.
When Freda wrote for the paper, it was based in what was then her home city of Lahore - indeed it was the city's leading nationalist daily. It's now in Chandigarh.
The paper's archives were recently digitised which meant that the task of retrieving Freda's journalism - and stories about her and her husband - was hugely easier than in the old days of leafing through mouldering volumes of bound copies of the paper.
Here's the link to today's article: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/spectrum/fearless-freda/725486.
And if you want to see the article as laid out - it's the cover of the Sunday Tribune's Spectrum supplement - then here's the link:
If you look for parallels with Freda Bedi's life - her immersion in India, her political radicalism, her championing of India's national cause and her embrace of an Eastern religion - then the commanding example is Annie Besant. Indeed the similarities in their lives are striking. Both were English women who, during the era of Empire, became unequivocally Indian.
There are differences too - Freda married an Indian while Annie left an unhappy marriage with an English vicar, and Freda was ordained as a Buddhist nun while Annie was a Theosophist. But their lives have so much in common that you wonder whether Freda regarded Annie as a role model.
I am currently in Chennai, the city which Annie Besant made her home for the latter part of her life. She died here - at Adyar, which remains the global headquarters of the Theosophy movement. A nearby area of the city remains known as Besant Nagar. Her gilded statue still looks out over Marina beach.
Annie Besant is much more actively remembered in India than in her home country, in spite of her influential role as a young woman in promoting freethought and birth control, and supporting the rights of unskilled women workers.
Annie Besant and Freda Bedi never met. Annie - Freda's senior by more than sixty years - died in September 1933, a few months before Freda first set foot on Indian soil. There's nothing in Freda's writing and reminscences to suggest that she modelled herself on Annie - and anyway, that's not how life happens. But there are threads of connection between the two women.
One link is Norah Richards, an Irish woman who also made her life in India, becoming an exponent of Punjabi folk theatre and establishing the artists' colony at Andretta in what is now Himachal Pradesh. The Bedis visited Andretta often and built a simple cottage there with Norah's blessing. It's still standing. Norah and Freda became good friends, and Norah had been greatly influenced by Annie Besant (whose family were of Irish origin) and by Theosophy.
There's another even more direct link. Freda's husband-to-be, B.P.L. Bedi - before he headed off to Europe to study - made a journey around India. He recounted that he made a particular point of going to Adyar where he sought out Annie Besant and received her blessing.
'I had revered Annie Besant for years since I heard her at Lahore giving a speech on the essence of living. I met her in a big hall and only on special request as it was a day on which she wasn’t meeting anyone', B.P.L. Bedi recalled. 'She was sitting looking so beautiful, her hair white and her white flowing garment. I just went and literally kept my promise; touched her feet, and she said “Well, I bless you”.’
By this time Besant was a moderate within Indian nationalism while B.P.L. Bedi was increasingly attracted to the militant wing of the movement. Nevertheless, he felt great affection for the elderly woman. ‘I respected her for what and who she was and what she had done.'
In December 1943, the Tribune - then based in Lahore, since relocated to Chandigarh - sent Freda Bedi to report first hand on the most terrible of the wartime tragedies to beset India. She spent a month reporting on the Bengal Famine, 'tramping the villages and seeing the worst spots', as she wrote to an old Oxford friend, 'something so horrible that an Airgram can't hold it'.
As so often, she made her priority seeing what was happening in the villages and to village women in particular. At times, she travelled by bicycle, 'a perilous affair with inactive brakes. It was in addition a man's cycle and I couldn't get off easily. So I quietly fell off whenever the crowd got too great.' Her account of the individual stories of loss and destitution gave particular force to her writing.
'At every door I stopped to hear the same pitiful theme, with its hundred variations. "Here the men have gone away to work in Assam: the women have nothing. They make a bare occasional living working at marriages and festivals. In between they starve" ... "Here they have all run away: the men to the town, the women to beggary and destitution and the gruel kitchens." I shuddered. There was a lot behind that inadequate word, destitution. Humiliation, demoralisation, casual prostitution, disease. And behind it the face of abandoned children.'
She reported on the manner by which young girls, some of them infants, were sold for sex. ‘The need to take people from beggary to self-supporting work is a real one. In the case of women, it is the only road open to them if they are not to become mere cattle in the markets of human flesh.’
Freda believed that as many as four-million people may have died from starvation or from diseases which, if well nourished, they would have survived. From this she made the obvious argument that if India was governed by those whose first concern was the welfare of India’s citizens, the tragedy would not have been on anything like the same scale:
'There is no argument left for the status quo when it has failed so miserably, and there is no doubt about it that any patriotic team of Indians could have averted such a terrible loss of life. The Indian demand for a National Government at the Centre has become not only insistent, but a matter of life and death.'
Her journalism from Bengal was published in book form in the course of 1944 with the title Bengal Lamenting - graced by an exceptionally powerful cover design by Sobha Singh, then a young progressive artist and in later years best-known for his depictions of the Sikh gurus. Thirty years later she returned to Bengal when her oldest son, Ranga, was living in Calcutta - you do wonder what memories that return to Bengal invoked.
The Lives of Freda
- a blog about my biography of Freda Bedi