THE LIVES OF FREDA: THE BLOG
Here I am talking about Freda Bedi's journalism - and the possibility that she was the first Indian woman journalist writing a regular column about women's issues. That column 'From a Woman's Window' appeared in the Lahore daily the Tribune for a year or so in the early 1940s. I was talking to Krishna Prasad, former editor of Outlook magazine, and he's posted this on YouTube.
This review has appeared on the books page of the Telegraph in Calcutta.
I'm not sure what I think of being called a 'veteran' journalist - but I suppose I've been called worse. And at least the reviewer likes the book - and indeed has highlighted Freda's championing of 'the voices of women in the struggle for Kashmir'.
The website The Print has carried a chunky piece from The Lives of Freda:
And the Sunday Guardian has published an extract from the book's introduction: https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/culture/british-birth-indian-cultural-affinity
A real thrill at the weekend - a chance to talk about Freda Bedi and The Lives of Freda in the wonderful setting of the Madras Literary Society. It's India's oldest lending library with a history stretching back over 200 years and the Society has been in its current, spectacular, premises on Chennai's College Road for well over a century.
An attentive and well-informed audience came along to the event, which was co-hosted by the MLS and the Chennai chapter of INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. The photo above is a birds-eye view of proceedings - taken from the highest level of the library's vertiginous book stacks - as I am being introduced by Sujatha Shankar of INTACH.
These photographs were taken by Nandan Sankriti Kaushik - many thanks Nandan for permission to post them here.
Quite the most exciting moment was when I heard that a network of women's reading groups across Tamil Nadu had bought eight copies of the biography, which has been sent to different groups with an informal translation of key points of the biography into Tamil. I was told that the groups has been enthusiastic about the story of a woman who challenged convention and moulded her own life.
And I'm adding a couple of other photos - group photos - from the weekend event at the MLS:
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.
A really warm review of The Lives of Freda has just appeared in the Indian Journalism Review, a long-running blog run by Krishna Prasad, former editor of Outlook magazine. The review focusses on Freda's column for the Tribune in the 1940s, 'From a Woman's Window'. He suggests that this may have been the first column in an Indian paper by a woman journalist addressing women's issues.
Do give the review a read: https://indianjournalismreview.com/2019/03/23/how-a-newspaper-editor-inspired-a-spunky-english-mom-to-name-her-first-son-ranga-the-amazing-life-and-times-of-possibly-indias-first-woman-columnist-freda-bedi/
Separately, the Millennium Post has run an excerpt from the biography.
These photos of the launch of The Lives of Freda in Chennai earlier this week have been taken by Deepali Saxena, who is in the TV journalism class I teach at the Asian College of Journalism - thanks Deepali!
'It was a pleasure to read this extraordinary book and I encourage you to do the same.' That's Awanthi Vardaraj's verdict in her review of The Lives of Freda on the new multi-lingual site Asiaville.
Her piece includes video of interviews with Kabir Bedi and the author of the biography, Andrew Whitehead. Do check it out! www.asiavillenews.com/article/review-the-lives-of-freda-by-andrew-whitehead-3292
The actor Kabir Bedi - Freda Bedi's son - was the chief guest at the Chennai launch of The Lives of Freda yesterday evening. It took place at the splendid new auditorium of the Asian College of Journalism, and was presided over by the dean of studies, Nalini Rajan, who is also a novelist.
Three students - from left to right below, Madhulika Gupta, Nivetha Sekar and Aman Khanna - asked questions of both Kabir Bedi and of Andrew Whitehead (all three are in his TV journalism class at ACJ).
Kabir was generous in his praise of the book, and fielded questions from both the audience as well as the panel. More than a hundred people attended, and lots of copies of the book were sold - and indeed signed.
The event was live streamed on ACJ's digital platforms - and you can see a particularly pertinent clip from the evening here: https://twitter.com/mvdhiraj/status/1107991888307482624 And the New Indian Express has done a quick turn-round story on the launch, Freda Bedi: an ode to a remarkable woman
The Hindu has - rather marvellously - carried another article about The Lives of Freda, pointing to tomorrow's launch event in Chennai which Kabir Bedi will attend. Do come along!
Freda Bedi's biography was launched in Bangalore on Saturday evening - and you can see me here with Ranga Bedi, Freda and BPL's first child.
Ranga and his wife Umi were the generous hosts of the launch event, held at the G-Gallery off Lavelle Road. It was a wonderful evening, well attended and very sociable. Many thanks to all who attended. And a big shout out for Seher Bedi, Freda's grand-daughter, whose photos I have posted here.
Here's Umi and Ranga at the launch - the family has a wonderful archive of papers, letters, photos and recordings which they very kindly made available to me as I worked on Freda's life story.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the head of Biocon, and her husband John Shaw were among those attending the launch. The novelist Sadiqa Peerbhoy - below with her husband Bunty Peerbhoy - was the moderator of the event.
Linked to the publication of The Lives of Freda, Naseer Ganai, Outlook magazine's correspondent in Srinagar, interviewed me by email about the Bedis' political influence in Kashmir in the late 1930s and 1940s. Here's the link to Naseer's piece: www.outlookindia.com/website/story/bedis-in-kashmir/327143
And here's what I said:
Q: What was the role of communists, especially of B.P.L Bedi, in the land reforms initiated by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as you have quoted Christabel Taseer describing him as "advisor in chief' to Sheikh Abdullah, and Josef Korbel calling him as 'the eminence grise behind the Abdullah government."
A: Bedi was, as well as a Communist, a prominent activist in Punjab's kisan movement. I think he encouraged the National Conference to advocate land reforms, and he certainly played a key role in drawing up the 1944 'New Kashmir' manifesto which demanded 'land to the tiller' - one of the earliest expressions of this political slogan in India. Bedi was very influential in Srinagar, and Sheikh Abdullah relied on him a lot, but I suspect his role was not as sinister as Josef Korbel, a very outspoken anti-Communist, suggests.
Q: You have stated that B.P.L. Bedi’s most outstanding political achievement was that he was the principal architect of the New Kashmir document, but at the same time the book says it was stolen from Stalin’s communist manifesto. Also, you say that Bedi never claimed ownership of it. Which of the three statements is correct?
A: B.P.L. Bedi took the lead in compiling the 'New Kashmir' manifesto. It's a very ambitious 44-page document which was both a manifesto and a draft constitution. Bedi never claimed to have written the entire document - because he didn't. He borrowed liberally from other documents, and the proposed constitution for Jammu & Kashmir was based closely on the 1936 constitution that Stalin introduced in the Soviet Union. So all three statements are correct - Bedi was the main person involved in putting together the manifesto, though much of it was taken from other publications, including the Soviet constitution. I wouldn't say that 'New Kashmir' stole from the Soviet document - which suggests dishonesty - simply that given the task of a devising a draft constitution, Bedi turned for inspiration to the constitution that he knew and admired most, that of Stalin's Soviet Union.
Q: The New Kashmir Manifesto featured a drawing of a woman on its front cover. Whose idea was it?
A: I don't know - but I think it is remarkable. The woman was a representation of a National Conference activist, Zuni Gujjari, and she is depicted as politically assertive rather than decorative. This tallies with the distinctly progressive sections of 'New Kashmir' addressing women's rights, including to education and training as well as full social and political equality. It's one of the most intriguing aspects of Kashmir nationalism in the 1940s. And of course a few years later Srinagar saw a left-wing women's militia, the Women's Self-Defence Corps, of which Freda Bedi was a member. She may have had a role in achieving the emphasis on gender issues in 'New Kashmir' but there's no definitive confirmation of that.
Q: Was Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah about the activities of B.P.L Bedi the only reason responsible for the sudden exit of Bedis from Kashmir in early 1953 or were there some other reasons?
A: I think there were a range of reasons - Nehru's unhappiness with Bedi was one factor, so too was Sheikh Abdullah's increasing disenchantment with his left-wing supporters. I suspect the Bedis also had personal reasons for leaving Kashmir.
Q: What was the role of Freda Bedi in establishing the Government College for Women and how many years did she spend in the college as a lecturer in English?
A: Some of Freda Bedi's former colleagues in the Women's Self-Defence Corps took the lead in setting up the Government College for Women. Freda gave birth to her daughter in Srinagar in 1949. When she returned to work the following year, she started lecturing at the College and continued in this role for about two years. She is still remembered fondly by some of her Kashmiri students
The Lives of Freda
- a blog about my biography of Freda Bedi