United colours of Freda Bedi

Her family was hostile, her college was horrified, and their marriage caused a “minor sensation”

Published - February 16, 2019 04:15 pm IST

Freda and B.P.L. Bedi in Srinagar, 1948.

Freda and B.P.L. Bedi in Srinagar, 1948.

When she enrolled as a student at one of Oxford’s women’s colleges in 1929, Freda Houlston, from a middle-class family in the English Midlands, had never come across India or Indians. By the time she left Oxford, she regarded herself Indian.

Within a few weeks of her final exams, Freda married a Punjabi fellow student, B.P.L. Bedi, at the Oxford registry office. Although it was another year before she set foot on Indian soil, once married, she habitually wore Indian clothes, writing excitedly to her mother-in-law in Kapurthala that she had been shown how to wear a sari.

“It was a very quiet little student that came up to St. Hugh’s College,” Freda recalled years later, but for a “provincial girl, it was really the opening of the gates of the world.” She was anti-establishment by nature and, along with a group of friends, started going to meetings of the communist October Club and to the Majlis, where Indian students — there were about 40 at Oxford at that time — assembled to make the case for India’s freedom.

Freda described herself as one of the Depression generation. Her outlook was shaped by mass unemployment, the rise of fascism, and growing unease about the oppressive manner in which Britain ruled over its colonies. B.P.L. and Freda became friends, comrades, and eventually, lovers. Even before she ever saw India, the couple had jointly edited four books about India’s freedom struggle for nationhood.

More than an intellectual collaboration, their story was a romance — a heart-warming defiance of social convention. Quite a few wealthy Indians returned from studying in England with a foreign wife in tow. But Freda believed she was the first Oxford woman to marry an Indian fellow student. They were, she said, “two students in love, refusing to recognise the barriers of race and colour, united in their love of justice and freedom — a marriage based on everything that was good in us.”

Long road

It was a difficult journey. Freda’s family was initially hostile to the marriage; her college was horrified and Freda was disciplined — supposedly for seeing her boyfriend without a chaperone, though she saw it as racial discrimination. The registrar who conducted the wedding ceremony refused to shake hands with the couple in an ostentatious show of disapproval.

The marriage caused, as Freda put it with some understatement, a “minor sensation”. It was even discussed by some of the Indian leaders who had come to England for the Round Table Conferences, the unsuccessful attempts to agree on India’s future. The couple heard that A. Rangaswami Iyengar, editor of The Hindu , had been particularly supportive: “Why shouldn’t our boys marry the best English girls?” he had declared, “I think they should get married. Why not!”

Freda and B.P.L. made a point of calling on the newspaper editor to thank him. By the time their first child was born, Iyengar was dead. They named their son in memory of “this great statesman who had helped us so much”; Ranga Bedi is now in his mid-80s and lives in Bengaluru.

This transgressive marriage was just the first of several occasions on which Freda refused to be constrained by barriers of race, religion, nation or gender. Once the couple had settled in Lahore, she combined being a dutiful daughter-in-law with political activism. The Bedis were celebrated Leftists and nationalists and together published Contemporary India , an impressive quarterly review. Freda also had a weekly column — From a Woman’s Window — in The Tribune , the city’s main nationalist daily.

Freda in her nun’s robes in the late 60s.

Freda in her nun’s robes in the late 60s.

When World War II erupted, B.P.L., by then a prominent Communist, was locked up by the British to prevent him disrupting military recruitment. Freda decided she too must make a stand and, with Gandhi’s blessing, became a satyagrahi, publicly defying the Emergency wartime regulations. She spent three months in Lahore women’s jail. The political prisoners there were able to spin in Gandhian style and sing revolutionary songs — indeed, Freda presided over a May Day rally behind bars.

New direction

By Partition, the couple had a second child, Kabir, the acclaimed actor; a daughter, Gulhima, followed a few years later. The family moved to Kashmir and worked alongside firebrand progressive nationalist Sheikh Abdullah. Freda enrolled in a left-wing women’s militia and the family still has photos of her with rifle in hand.

In the 50s, Freda encountered Buddhism during a working visit to Myanmar. Again, her life headed in a fresh direction. When thousands of Tibetans fled on foot across the Himalayas, she persuaded Nehru to send her to Assam to help ensure proper facilities for the refugees.

She went on to set up a school for young lamas; she took the remarkable step of becoming a Tibetan Buddhist nun — probably the first woman in Tibetan tradition to receive a full ordination; she persuaded her guru, the Karmapa Lama, to reach out to new devotees and travelled with him in 1974 on a pioneering five-month tour of the U.S. and Europe. She is respected to this day as the woman who sowed the seeds of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

Freda died in Delhi in 1977 having lived two-thirds of her life in India; she held an Indian passport and for many years had worked for the Indian government. When her friend Indira Gandhi gave her an award for services to India as a foreigner, she was — as Kabir recalls — “very upset”. After spending her life challenging crude labels of identity, she was still seen as an outsider because of the colour of her skin.

The former BBC India correspondent’s biography, The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi , will be published this month.

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