Meet The Extraordinary Freda Bedi: An English Woman Who Fought For India's Freedom

An English champion of Indian nationalism, Freda Bedi delighted in confounding accepted definitions of identity

Andrew Whitehead Updated: Sep 22, 2019 11:14:19 IST
Meet The Extraordinary Freda Bedi: An English Woman Who Fought For India's Freedom Freda and BPL's engagement photograph, 1933

It was the biggest decision of her life, the one for which she is most remembered, but Freda Bedi didn’t tell her children that she was being ordained as a Buddhist nun. There was no family council, no private conversation, not even, it seems, a letter to announce her intention. She may have been thinking back 30 years or more to the time she made the journey from Oxford to the family home in Derby in the English Midlands. Her mission then was to tell her mother that she intended to marry her Punjabi boyfriend. It hadn’t gone well. The strain of persisting with that romance in the face of disapproval from her family and college had precipitated a breakdown. Nellie was quickly reconciled to her daughter’s marriage—though less so to the thousands of miles that came to separate her from her family in India. Freda could well have had all that churning in her mind as she prepared to take her vows, laden with a profound sense of loss: Her mother died just two weeks before the ordination.

So at this second crucial juncture of her life, Freda decided to act first—and to let her children know simply by appearing in her nun’s robes and with her head shaved. It didn’t go well.

"There was this terrible feeling of betrayal," Kabir Bedi recalls. It was 1966 and the height of the Delhi summer. Kabir was 20, a student at one of India’s most prestigious university colleges, St Stephen’s, and still recovering from a broken back. Handsome and confident, he was dabbling in modelling and broadcasting which were to be his entry points to a successful career in film. He understood that Buddhism loomed increasingly large in his mother’s life, but hadn’t been prepared for her ordination as a nun.

the-bedis-together-mid-1960s-or-a-little-later_092019044119.jpgThe Bedis together, mid-1960s or a little later (Photo taken from the book)

"I was living in a hostel and I was told that Mummy’s come in to town and would I go and see her." She was staying in Nizamuddin, a middle-class corner of Delhi, with a close family member who Kabir regarded as an uncle. "I went there and I suddenly saw her and she had shaved her hair and she was in Tibetan Buddhist robes. Firstly, there was the shock of seeing her like that, and secondly was this feeling of betrayal that she hadn’t told me before she did it. I had been so close to her in her journey to Buddhism, everything she went through, that for her to do something like that without telling me was incomprehensible to me."

He was angry and said so. Why? he demanded of his mother; why now? He still remembers her response. “It is something I felt I had to do and I knew if I started discussing it with everybody, God knows what might have happened.” Kabir was seven when his mother found Buddhism while on a United Nations mission to Burma (now Myanmar). He had accompanied her back there when she studied meditation, and had himself enrolled briefly as a novitiate. He had worn the robes and shaved off his hair—in much the same manner as his mother had now done. He had spent time with his mother at the camps in Assam set up for the Tibetans who fled across the mountains to escape Chinese rule—that’s where she first became immersed in Tibetan belief and culture. He had taught at the Young Lamas’ Home School she established. It had felt like a shared journey. Now Freda, Sister Palmo as she became known, had decided to press on alone. "I raised all the silly arguments I could think of: Your daughter’s still in college, she’s not married, how’s she going to manage? All silly things. But basically, I was angry because I felt betrayed. There was a terrible sense of loss. It’s like, you’ve lost your mother."

Gulhima, Kabir’s sister, was a tempestuous 16-year-old. She had just finished boarding school in the north Indian hills—a Tibetan girl, one of those Freda had taken under her wing, was among her fellow pupils there. Guli was close to both her parents—but her mother and father no longer lived together. Freda spent much of her time at the lamas’ school in Dalhousie, a day or more’s travel north of Delhi; Bedi, an exuberant and increasingly outlandish character, had a new household. Guli regarded Kabir, and her oldest brother Ranga and his wife Umi, as her ‘rocks’—she stayed with them during school holidays.

She found out about her mother’s ordination from Kabir. "I came to his place at the weekends, and it was a funny way that he broke the news to me. He said: 'One thing you will never have to worry about again is to buy Mummy a comb.' I said: 'What on earth do you mean?' He said: 'She couldn’t tell you herself—she wanted me to tell you.'" Gulhima was furious—both about her mother’s decision and about how she was told of it. "I had no problem about her becoming a Buddhist but when she became a nun I felt abandoned. I didn’t like that she had become a nun and didn’t have the guts to tell me—she didn’t want a scene and knew that there would be one."

Ranga, then in his early 30s and living with his family on a tea estate in Assam, was more understanding. "There wasn’t any warning," he says, "and yet I think there were signs on the horizon." Freda had told her husband of her intention to become a nun. According to the family, he wept—but gave his blessing. She had taken informal vows from her teacher, the 16th Karmapa Lama, three years earlier and had lived a celibate life for still longer. The romance of the marriage had faded as had the political comradeship, and Freda and Bedi took strikingly divergent spiritual paths in middle age—but the bonds forged in Oxford, Lahore and Srinagar remained strong, and her husband’s understanding and support was important to her. Freda received her ordination from the 16th Karmapa Lama on 1 August 1966 amid the splendour of Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, 5,000 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas. The religious centre dated from the eighteenth century, but was in ruins when the Karmapa Lama—having fled across the mountains to escape China’s occupation of Tibet—chose it as his new base. It was officially inaugurated as his seat on the Tibetan New Year in 1966. Sikkim was a small princely state bordering Tibet under Indian suzerainty, and was fully integrated into India—much to China’s indignation—only in 1975.

A few days after the ceremony, still at Rumtek, Freda received what was clearly an anguished letter from Kabir. Manorma Dewan was part of the extended family—her husband’s flat was the venue of Kabir’s meeting with his newly-robed mother—and remembers the central message of that letter: "You have become very selfish." Manorma agreed with that view. "I personally thought: Guli is still very young; she should have thought about her. I told my husband. I personally thought it is OK to become a nun but you have to take care of your children." Freda replied immediately by telegram, and followed that up with a three-page handwritten missive to her ‘darling son’. Kabir still has that letter. "I have been in a maze of pain, feeling your and Guli’s," she wrote. "You all knew one day this step would be taken; we even joked about my losing my hair! Somehow, now had to be the time. The inner renunciation was complete long ago." It was a deeply personal and impassioned plea to her son for acceptance. "I did not want to dramatize it, write + tell you. I can’t write about things so deep inside—they are beyond words. Speaking is a little easier (I told Papa) but paper does not really convey the necessity—not just for me, but for all of you too. But I did feel—still feel—that you would understand."

The newly-ordained nun’s shock and bewilderment in the face of Kabir’s broadside was unmistakable. She sought to reassure him that she was still there for her children.

Things are the same, at least outwardly, except for my dress. We will meet + spend holidays together as usual. Mother love doesn’t just dry up. I can still see your little face as it was when you drank my milk + Guli on her first birthday, with that full moon face of hers. You needed me then; you need me now. I am still there. If Papa at any time needs me in advancing age, I am also still there… I thought that, with that special understanding we all have for one another, the birth could be painless. But I had not realized that the cutting of the birth cord must cause pain. It heals. The link between the baby and the Mother does not cease. It continues. Nothing ceases. In a way, this time I am The baby. And I need you all, your love + protection, even physical help, even if in another way.

She wrote of the loss of her mother—the English grandmother her children hardly knew. "I am sure all the prayers are helping her … I saw her in my dream." And she assured Kabir and Gulhima, "You are both near, like the blood in my veins." Freda had ample emotional intelligence. It was not on best display in the method by which she revealed her new vocation to her children. This letter was an attempt to make amends. If there was a quality which Freda Bedi possessed in still greater abundance, it was determination. She had thought hard about her decision to become a nun, and there was no hint in her letter to Kabir of doubt or regret. "To take an ordination in direct line from the Buddha is an inexpressibly sacred thing. In a way an ordination is not only a renunciation: It is a protection, + way." It was the way she had chosen for herself, shaped by her immersion in Buddhist teaching and in the lives of the young Tibetan incarnate lamas she had helped to mould. She wanted her family on board—but the decision was not open to negotiation or reconsideration.

freda-kabir-and-ranga--_092019043442.jpgFreda, Kabir and Ranga (astride the family's Great Dane, Rufus) in Kashmir (Photo taken from the book)

For a woman who had earlier been an advocate of communism, it’s tempting to suggest that she replaced one faith with another. Tempting, but wrong. As with so many of those won over to the communist cause during the dark decade of the 1930s and the world war that followed, Freda’s impulse was moral and ethical rather than ideological. Bedi was a much more committed communist, a party man who enjoyed the intrigue and bravado that went along with allegiance to a semi-clandestine movement, and for a few years she joined in largely out of loyalty to her husband. Her embrace of India’s national cause, again born out of a keen sense of justice and equity, was much deeper rooted—and more abiding. She was furiously busy and much celebrated as an apostle of Indian nationalism. Once independence was achieved, the absence of that sense of purpose must have left a void, as would the waning of her marriage and the increasing self-reliance of her children. Freda’s decision to become a nun was a spiritual one, a resolution of a quest evident since her childhood, but the public and personal rhythms of her life made that act of renunciation easier.

Kabir says he came to terms with his mother’s decision within a matter of weeks. Guli took a little longer to come round. The anger and hurt was replaced by respect and pride. Freda was as good as her word, she was still there for her children: counselling Kabir through his at times turbulent love life; being at Guli’s side as she gave birth; and coming back from religious trips abroad with what Ranga describes as ‘frilly-fancy’ clothes and Marks and Spencer underwear for his young daughters.  Her renunciation was also an abdication of the financial support to her family—not that she had been able to help them all that much in the previous few years. Towards the end of her deeply emotional letter to her son, Freda turned to the pedestrian matter of money. "Kabir, I don’t forget all your financial worries too. Your bravery in facing them, + your determination not to worry me with them are something very special. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."

When Freda had given up her job with the Indian government to work with Tibetan refugees, she also forsook her government salary. Her husband had never had a regular income apart from his five years working in Kashmir. The family were skint and Freda had to call on favours from friends in high places to help her younger children through college. "Has Guli’s scholarship come through from Auntie Indu?" she enquired of Kabir in that same letter. Auntie Indu was Indira Gandhi.

Two years after her ordination, Freda went on a year-long retreat at Rumtek. There she was visited by her old Oxford friend, Olive Shapley, who had become a much-loved voice of BBC radio. Olive brought with her a portable tape recorder, and recorded an interview—apparently never broadcast—about Freda’s spiritual journey and all she had given up when she became ordained.

"You see, I have no regrets at all," the nun insisted, "because what had to be given up is given up. It fell off naturally—as I say, like an apple falling off a tree. And we don’t have to give up loving those who are near and dear to us. We have to give up attachment, which is a different thing. To be attached is a great burden not only for you personally but for the people to whom you are attached. Love is the great thing—and that doesn’t change … So if I have caused any suffering to my children I’m very sorry about it. And I think they understand that. But by the blessings of the Triple Gem"—a reference to the three key aspects of Buddhist belief—"everything has gone on ever so well since I left and the older brothers take more interest in their sister and things like that. But I think there’s no loss, in fact I think there’s a gain. It’s impossible to explain this to anybody but I think when you go around India and you see my family, I think you will understand."

Olive did understand and was supportive of her friend’s decision— she would hardly have made the long journey to Rumtek, with her sons in tow, if it had been otherwise. She had known B. P. L. Bedi at Oxford and hadn’t been too impressed by him, so may not have been surprised that Freda was ploughing her own furrow. Olive’s own allegiances had in some ways echoed her friend’s—a much fiercer though transient commitment to communism, and a more distant interest in the East and its belief systems. Sitting in a small room at the monastery, Olive asked with deceptive innocence: Now what has brought you here? Sister Palmo began at the beginning. "Well, I was born in Derby," she replied. "And funnily enough in a place called Monk Street."

Extracted with permission from The Lives Of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys by Andrew Whitehead from Speaking Tiger
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