The British Empire Library

The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi

by Andrew Whitehead

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The author, a BACSA member, academic, and BBC journalist, tells the astonishing story of Freda Bedi’s journey from a middle class home in Derby through Oxford and marriage to an Indian fellow student to journalism, social engagement and politics in India, culminating in spiritual fulfilment as an ordained Buddhist nun. Andrew Whitehead’s own marriage to an Indian, and life and work in India, inform his understanding of his unique subject.

Freda Houlston, as she was born in 1911, was far from being among the early wave of British women to marry Indians. This was increasingly common from the early 19th century, when Biddy Timms married an Indian from Lucknow, and, writing as Mrs Meer Hassan Ali, prefigured Freda’s writing career with her book Observations on the Mussulmauns of India (1832). By the later 19th and turn of the century, many more Indians were travelling to Britain for pleasure or education, and the increasing number of British women who married Indians inspired novels by writers such as Fanny Penny. By the time Freda was living in the Punjab, she estimated that there were some 300 European wives. What distinguished Freda was that she was Oxford-educated, and shared with her husband, B.P.L.Bedi, life-long interests and commitment that arose out of their shared university experience.

Arriving at St Hugh’s in 1929, she read PPE, which underlay her interest in socialism and communism, shared by many Indian students, including Bedi, who espoused the left as part of an anti-imperialist stance. With Bedi she published works on India, and after her marriage to him in 1933 - controversial at the time - she dedicated herself entirely to India and its cause. When the couple returned to Lahore in 1934, they both continued to write about the country and the issues facing it, but politics played an increasingly important part, especially as World War Two approached. Freda was imprisoned for opposing India’s participation in the war, and later for her support for Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign. Meanwhile, her concern for Indian women was reflected in her teaching role at a woman’s college, as well as writing articles and books on the lives and problems of Indian women. These interests continued with the couple’s move to Kashmir after Partition, where they supported the progressive, secular nationalism of Sheikh Abdullah. Freda joined the Women’s Self- Defence Force, and also lectured at the newly-established Government College for women in Srinagar.

But her life was to take a radically different turn in her quest for spiritual fulfilment. She never adopted the Sikh faith of her husband, though she followed both Islam and Hinduism in Kashmir. However, in 1948 she was sent on a short UN posting to Burma to help plan the country’s social service. It was her encounter here with Buddhism which changed her life. Although on her return to India she continued to be involved with her former interests, writing for the government’s Central Social Welfare Board, particularly on women’s issues, and travelling widely round the country, it was Buddhism which became her central focus. This was further emphasised by the Tibetan refugee crisis from the late 1950s, when Prime Minister Nehru involved her in welfare work. She established the Young Lamas’ Home School in 1961 and conscious that the role of women was under-represented in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, followed this in 1963 with the creation of a small Buddhist nunnery in Dalhousie. In 1966 she was ordained a novice nun, with full ordination in 1972. In the succeeding years she travelled widely round the world, promoting the knowledge and practice of Buddhism. Her blonde hair was shaved off, emphasising her large blue English eyes, and in her nun’s maroon robes she was a singular figure. Her commitment to Buddhism also entailed celibacy. These and other factors challenged normal married and family life, aspects of her story which the author explores sensitively. Bedi, an ebullient and larger-than-life character with a roving eye, was enough to destabilise any normal relationship, though the couple retained respect and friendship to the end. As for their three surviving children, their love surmounted their mother’s sometimes difficult decisions which involved long absences, though Freda herself never wavered in her commitment to them.

The author was fortunate in being given access to extensive family archives, as well as recordings which Freda herself made in her later years. The resulting picture is intimate and perceptive - but by no means a hagiography. Freda Bedi was a remarkable and truly impressive woman, though some who encountered her were less awed than others. In taking all this evidence into account, Whitehead gives us a compelling picture of an outstanding character and the age in which she lived. Highly recommended.

British Empire Book
Andrew Whitehead
First Published
Speaking Tiger Books
Review Originally Published
Spring 2020 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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