THE LIVES OF FREDA: THE BLOG
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