‘The Lives of Freda’: The story of an extraordinary woman

Melanie P Kumar | Updated on June 28, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

Meet my mom: Actor Kabir Bedi (third right) at the Chennai launch of his mother’s biography, authored by former journalist Andrew Whitehead (third left)   -  B JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Andrew Whitehead’s eminently readable book brings alive the multifaceted personality of Freda Bedi

Biographies seldom occupy the high table in India. The lives of celebrities get written about, but the genre in itself is not accorded the importance it gets in many other parts of the world. It is on reading the story of Freda Bedi — who fought for India’s independence — that you realise the significance of her unconventional life and the need for documenting it.

The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi; Andrew Whitehead; Speaking Tiger; Non-fiction; ₹499


The eminently readable book by Andrew Whitehead brings alive the multifaceted personality of Freda and the many lives she could pack into a span of 66 years. Interestingly, the author bears some similarity with his subject. Both were born in Britain and married into India, which they made their home. Whitehead was the BBC’s India correspondent and his rich journalistic background shows in the crisp style and tenor of the writing.

Slices of India’s history jump out of the pages of this book, even as Whitehead unravels the complex life of Freda Houlston, who married her Oxford contemporary Baba Pyare Lal Bedi n 1933. When she told her best friend Barbara Castle that she planned to marry the Sikh student, the response was a laconic, “Well, thank goodness. Now at least you won’t become a suburban housewife”.

The author interviewed Bedi’s three children — Ranga (a tea planter), Kabir (a popular stage and film actor) and Guli (who lives in the US). Ranga, incidentally, was named after A Rangaswami Iyengar, the editor of The Hindu in the early ’30s. The Bedis had heard from friends that Iyengar had staunchly supported their marriage when the union had stirred up a controversy in some orthodox circles.

Whitehead spoke with her friends and referred to her letters and the recordings she had made for her family in which she mainly talked about the first 30 years of her life. Additionally, by going through newspaper records, Whitehead paints the picture of an amazing woman who overcame the barriers of religion, nation and gender while “always remaining true to her strong sense of justice and equality”.

She lived two-thirds of her life in India and held an Indian passport. She joined MK Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, and Whitehead narrates how the police were hesitant to arrest a British woman opposing her the Empire. But she was arrested — and served a prison sentence in Lahore.

Freda and Baba Bedi’s romance was as interesting as the rest of her life. The author quotes Freda as saying they were “two students in love, refusing to recognise the barriers of race and colour, dissolving religious differences into a belief in a common Good, united in their love of justice and freedom... a marriage based on all that was good in us.”

A part of the book deals with the time Bedi, Freda and her friends, Barbara and Olive Shapley, studied at Oxford. There were a few other Indian students as well, such as Dosoo Karaka, who was elected the first Indian president of Oxford Union — a great achievement, because though the Indian students there did come from elite backgrounds they also faced racial discrimination. Freda became aware of prejudice as “an increasingly stark fault line” during her year’s stay in Berlin, where Baba had secured a research scholarship soon after the two were married.

The Bedis were fired up by the ideals of communism in Oxford, and were a part of the communist movement in India. Later, Freda carved out her own political space as a civil liberties activist in Punjab and working with the Indian Civil Liberties Union set up by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1936. “By the spring of 1937, Freda was on the national council of the Civil Liberties Union and in June she was the principal organiser and speaker at a widely reported civil liberties conference in Amritsar,” he writes. Baba was involved with the peasant movement and became the joint secretary of the Left-led Kisan Sabha. (He outlived Freda by many years, later married a much younger woman, Antonia Chiappini, and lived with her in Italy — where he died in 1993, shortly after his last visit to India.)

The book runs the gamut of Freda’s many lives and her constant reinventing of herself. Her capacity for organisation and ability to network stood her in good stead as she moved from the nationalist movement to teaching in a college in Lahore, where the Bedis lived till the Partition, to bringing out a journal called Contemporary India. The publication carried rigorously researched articles on India, including by Subhas Chandra Bose, whom the couple greatly admired.

Freda, the author narrates, lobbied with Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi — her friend “Indu” — for the causes she believed in. When Tibetan refugees started arriving in India in 1959 after the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet, she drew Nehru’s attention to the abysmal conditions in the Missamari camps, near Tezpur, set up by the government for the refugees. Nehru visited the camps and, on returning, warned the civil servants in charge that Freda would be calling on them soon. “I do not want the fairly good record that we have set up in our treatment of these refugees to be spoiled now by attempts at economy or lack of care,” he said.

Freda, who had a spiritual side to her, turned her back on a life of activism to embrace Buddhism and become a nun in 1966. As Sister Palmo, she shuttled between monasteries in Dalhousie and Rumtek, till she breathed her last in Delhi in March 1977. It was, truly, a life well lived.

Melanie P Kumar is a Bengaluru-based writer

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Published on June 28, 2019
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