THE LIVES OF FREDA: THE BLOG
Here's Freda Bedi in her own voice. In the mid-1970s, while visiting her son Ranga in Calcutta, Freda - by then Sister Palmo - sat down with a cassette recorder and told the story of the first three decades or so of her life. This is a two minute extract from those tapes, describing how she first met her husband-to-be B.P.L. Bedi more than forty years earlier, when they were both students at Oxford.
There's no trace here of a regional accent - indeed, if anything Freda has an 'Oxford' or establishment accent. She wouldn't have grown up speaking in this manner, so I imagine that at Oxford - as with so many northern students at this time - she tutored herself our of her East Midlands lilt.
It is wonderful to be able to hear her voice - it's such an insight into character. And even though this is a brief extract, with the sound quality touched up to make it more clearly audible, you do get a sense of Freda's personality.
This truly remarkable letter written by Freda Bedi (she was then Freda Houlston) to her Punjabi boyfriend's brother has just come to light. It was almost certainly written early in 1933, just before Freda and B.P.L. Bedi got engaged. It's a touch frustrating to come across this after my biography The Lives of Freda has been published - but I'm so excited to have seen it. It is a deeply moving piece of writing!
This is how I came across the letter. Earlier this month I met for the first time in Chennai B.P.L. Bedi's nephew, Inder, and his wife Meena. Inder's father, T.D. Bedi, was B.P.L. older brother and an ICS officer and magistrate - B.P.L's father died young so his older brother was the head of the family.
Meena mentioned that when she was clearing out the family's Delhi house some years ago, she came across a letter Freda had written. It is posted here with Inder and Meena's kind permission. The letter is clearly in response to one that B.P.L. had written to his brother. B.P.L. shared his intention to marry his English girlfriend; T.D. seems to have replied saying - forget it, that's not what we sent you to Oxford for!
It's curious that the letter is typed, undated and unsigned. I suspect that Freda wrote by hand and then a copy was typed out at T.D.'s request either to make it easier to read or more probably to share the letter within the Bedi family. There are some errors of spelling and grammar which Freda would not have made. In the text of the letter below, I have sought to reconstruct what Freda would originally have written - do bear in mind she was just twenty-one at the time:
I believe you are a fair minded
man, your letter in spite of its disappointments
has not shattered this belief which Pyare Lal [B.P.L. Bedi]
and Shamsher [Bahadur] have given me in the first place.
Because of this I have a great trust that we
shall in the end completely understand one
I know how it must seem to you when
your dearly loved brother makes a decision to
marry some one who is a stranger to your
land, to your family, and to your race. The
very same thing has happened in my own family
when my dearly loved mother has had such a
struggle. Many a time, although I never flinched
in my decision, I cried myself to sleep at
night remembering just little, before unnoticed,
kindnesses that mother had done for me. And
I thought that the day might come when I should
have to make a choice between her and all my
home associations and Pyare and a country which
I loved but had never yet seen. God has spared
me that heart breaking choice – but if it had to
come, it would have been for the man I love and
India that I should have decided.
I don’t want to labour my sacrifice because
I am so rich in the love of Pyare Lal that all
else seems insignificant. By love I mean all the
glory of the tender, strong, passionate, peace
-ful, contended, self forgetful love of woman for
man. I do not believe man was created to live
without woman. As you love your brother, Bawa
Sahib, so I love your brother. But you are man
and I am woman, and while our love in its strength
must be the same at the core, for me there is also
another complexion to it. I see in Pyare Lal the
father of my children, and I tremble to the passion
of tenderness when I think I shall one day suckle
his son at my breast. None but the finest children could
be born of the spirit which unites us and
the strength of our bodies.
I can never be an Indian woman and can
not give him pure new children. Would that
alone prejudice you against them? Piyare and
I are one country in spirit and colour is
unimportant beside that. When I loved Piyare first
it was not for the first time, we came
together out of space – we have loved before –
and after this life we shall love again. I
would account it an unbearable shame to weaken
my love; it does not weaken, it strengthens.
I was not brought up in an easy
school. I do not ask ease from the future.
I want to serve and to serve as best a woman
can, by the side of her husband and children.
I repeat – there is one thing I can not
do; become an actual Indian woman. And I
know full well that some woman of his own
race will miss a perfect husband in Piyare.
But my spirit is with India and not with
England, with Pyare and not with a man of my own
country. My children will be an even greater bond.
My clothes another. Would you deny me your perfect
understanding for something I can not help? It just
happened that I was born in England – but it also
happened that my soul is not in this country but
in another. I have a different mission from Miss
Slade. [Madeleine Slade - a British woman who worked
with Gandhi] India accepted her service, I hope and
believe that she will accept mine.
I should be the last person to hold Pyare
back from completing the promise of the struggle
of his early life. I would rather cut my throat
than “demanise him”. This letter is equally
addressed to Bhaboo Ji [B.P.L.'s mother].
Sd. / Freda.
This was the journal in which Freda Bedi's (her maiden name was Houlston) first published writing about India appeared. United India was a curious, nationalist-minded, vaguely left-wing, journal published by an oddball in the Indian diaspora in the UK, G.S. Dara. Partly as a marketing ploy, I suspect, the issue for March 1932 was dubbed 'the Oxford number' and consisted of very short articles by more than twenty Oxford students. In June he followed up with a 'Cambridge number' of the journal.
Along with Freda, one of her close friends, Olive Shapley contributed. Among Indian students, Freda's husband-to-be B.P.L. Bedi wrote for the special number, as did Sajjad Zaheer and Humayun Kabir. Michael Foot and Tony Greenwood later rose to prominence in Labour governments; Frank Meyer and Dick Freeman were at this time the leading student communists at Oxford.
Freda's own contribution was insubstantial - but shows a focus on women, an element of sympathy for Bina Das, a nationalist would-be assassin, and familiarity with the Tribune, the main nationalist daily in Lahore.
Olive Shapley wrote a much more militant piece - let's remember this was still the Class-against-Class period of international communism which concludes:
If the woman's movement in India is to be used to prop up the capitalist system for a few more years before its inevitable collapse, then purdah and child-marriage would be lesser evils. The women of Russia did not achieve their emancipation through the media of welfare centres, baby clinics, and women's institutes, and it is greatly to be hoped that the women of India will not be deceived by these sops to their awakening consciousness.
The Lives of Freda
- a blog about my biography of Freda Bedi