Review: Stories I Must Tell by Kabir Bedi
Thoughtful, brave, full of insights about life, occasionally naïve, and utterly honest, Kabir Bedi’s memoir is unlike anything you would expect from a Bollywood personality. But then Bedi has always been different from the other stars of his generation, the Amitabh Bachchans, the Shatrughan Sinhas, the Jitendras etcetera, who clung to bourgeois respectability even when the gossip magazines hinted at lurid escapades.
Bedi was a member of the “bohemian Juhu gang” in the 1970s that included Shekhar Kapur, Mahesh Bhatt, Danny Denzongpa, Parveen Babi, Shabana Azmi, Parikshit Sahni and Jalal Agha, among others. He was in an open marriage with Protima, who gained great notoriety in that sepia pre-Internet-pre-social-media age by being photographed streaking ie running nude on – depending on the version you read – a Goa beach or the busy street in front of Jehangir Art Gallery in south Bombay. Finally, after all these decades, gossip mongers of a certain vintage will be happy to learn what exactly happened from Kabir Bedi himself:
I learnt the truth only years later. Rita Mehta, the editor of a film magazine, told me that featuring “a streaker” had been a publicity stunt for the launch of her new magazine Cine Blitz. The “streak” was shot on Juhu Beach by their photographer Tyeb Badshah. Four decades later, I learned that my friend Ketan Anand had held the towel that covered her before and after the shots.
Protima Bedi, the model and socialite who doubtless would have been the queen of Insta influencers today, later became an Odissi exponent, set up Nrityagram, a dance school outside Bengaluru, and morphed into Protima Gauri. But all that was after much heartache that came from experimenting with an unconventional marital arrangement. Indeed, the section of Stories I Must Tell that deals with the relationship reminded this reader of John Irving’s long forgotten novel, The 158-Pound Marriage (1974).
Kabir Bedi famously left his wife for Parveen Babi who, like Meena Kumari, Guru Dutt, and lately Sushant Singh Rajput, forms a part of Bollywood’s tragic tableau of stars who shone so bright they consumed themselves. While Protima’s own book, Timepass: The Memoirs of Protima Bedi (1999), which appeared posthumously has a different view of Babi, the end of her marriage, and of the sense of betrayal she experienced, Stories… reveals a young man wracked by guilt at leaving the family unit but going ahead, despite his deep love for his children Pooja and Siddharth, because of his need for emotional safety:
Protima thought I was making the biggest mistake of my life: “The bloody fool. He had it so good with me. I gave him everything, plus his freedom. He could have had his affairs, he could have done anything. I wouldn’t have objected.”
Even so, I had chosen intimacy, love and fidelity. At the time, it was what I needed the most. Parveen symbolised it.
Kabir Bedi’s success in Italy where Sandokan (1976) made him a superstar put a strain on his relationship with Babi who, from this account, seems to have already begun the slide that ended in her lonely death in 2005, when “Her body was found in her Juhu flat four days after she died, a leg rotted by gangrene, a wheelchair by her bed.”
Followers of film gossip will focus on the multiple marriages, affairs, and stories of infidelity but Stories I Must Tell is much more than that. It features great sketches of Bedi’s remarkable parents – his “auburn-haired English mother Freda” who became an influential Buddhist nun known as Gelongma Karma Kechog Palmo and his father Baba who became a philosopher in Italy (there must be a karmic connection with the Italians somewhere), and offers glimpses of the politics of newly independent India:
When India and Pakistan were partitioned by the ruling British, they had given Kashmir’s Hindu Maharaja the choice of joining Pakistan or India. Pakistan didn’t wait for his decision. They saw Kashmir as a Muslim state and launched an ill-disguised attack with their so-called tribesmen to capture it. Maharaja Hari Singh fled to Jammu… While he was away in Jammu, Sheikh Abdullah swept out the Maharaja’s autocracy with an irresistible uprising on the streets of Srinagar. Historian Andrew Whitehead quotes the Times of India saying: “The National Conference red flag decorates every public building in the city”. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, anointed Sheikh Abdullah as the new ruler of Kashmir.
My family arrived in Kashmir when India and Pakistan were still fighting a savage war. Pakistan’s raping, plundering, pillaging “tribesmen” uprooted thousands on their way. My mother cared for 17,000 refugees of the war in makeshift camps. In her inspiring biography on my mother, The Spiritual Odyssey of Freda Bedi, Naomi Levine wrote: “The priests and nuns of Baramulla, the oldest Catholic Church in Kashmir, were murdered and thrown into an open well. Freda and a party of volunteers cleaned up the church where the holy icons had been beheaded or mutilated.” Despite her lifelong pacifism, my mother learnt to wield a rifle in the women’s militia, which trained women to defend themselves from the invaders… Amid all her work, she never stopped being a loving mother.
As we settled into our new home along the Dal Lake, the Indian Army began pushing back the Pakistanis. It was a mission they never completed. Bowing to international pressure, Nehru declared a ceasefire on 1 January 1949. Kashmir still remains divided, with two-thirds controlled by India. But the ceasefire brought peace to the land. It was time to create a new and progressive State. Baba had written a landmark New Kashmir Constitution while countering Pakistani propaganda about their brutal invasion. Sheikh Abdullah called Baba’s New Kashmir Constitution “revolutionary”. Among its many socialist acts, it took land from feudal landowners and gave it to the landless. Historian Andrew Whitehead calls Baba’s Constitution “one of the most radical and egalitarian measures introduced in independent India”… Surprisingly, the Communist Party, of which Baba was a member, expelled him for writing it. The party wanted to attain its ideals through violent revolution, as it had done in Telangana, not by reform, as Baba had done in Kashmir. In a tape left behind, my father recalled telling them: “I have never come across a more stupid approach than this …” It must have hurt when they threw him out. But he chose to remain an honest adviser to his friend Sheikh Abdullah.
Indian readers will be fascinated by the unusual (for us) frankness about sexual relationships and tales of struggle and success in Hollywood and Europe but it is the section on the suicide of Bedi’s brilliant schizophrenic son Siddharth that reveals the man’s vulnerable saddened core. It is difficult to read and must have taken vast reserves of emotional strength to write:
I climbed the steps to his room to wish him goodnight in the falling light of dusk. I knew he was dead the instant I saw him… He must have felt cold in his final moments. The floral quilt that partly covered him seemed an afterthought. In his final gesture he had reached for an “ooroo”, the comfort blanket that trailed him as a child…”
The memoir is a tricky form and film stars who attempt it risk coming across as self-obsessed liars intent on whitewashing their pasts. That is not the case with this book, which is sometimes painfully honest. In a conversation with this reviewer on the Books & Authors podcast (on www.htsmartcast.com) Kabir Bedi said one of the reasons he wrote it was so young people could learn from his experiences, and avoid making similar mistakes. Given that every person traverses an individual path and has to learn his own lessons in love and life, this seems unlikely. Still, the reader might never succeed in dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous romantic fortune but he will definitely understand that it takes a brave man to be this emotionally honest. An immensely readable account of a life touched by fame, adventure, much love and deep sorrow too, Stories I Must Tell marks Kabir Bedi out as a true original.