Review: The Lives of Freda by Andrew Whitehead
Freedom fighter, member of a militia, spy, and finally a Buddhist nun, Freda Bedi’s biography details her extraordinary life
The blurb of Andrew Whitehead’s The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi ticked all my boxes. Remarkable woman? Check. Colonial era British lady marrying an Indian, becoming an Indian, fighting for India’s independence, and even being jailed as one of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagrahis? Check. Woman putting body, mind, heart and soul into Kashmir’s early struggles? Check. Woman seeking a spiritual path and eventually becoming one of the first western women to be fully ordained as a Buddhist nun? Check.
Oh, Freda Bedi, I thought as I browsed through the pages before settling down to read the book, you’ve done so much, you’re so extraordinary, how have I never heard of you before?
My excitement grew when, in his introduction, Whitehead talked about the amount of material available to him on his subject – there were letters to and from Freda and her family and friends, cassettes that recorded her thoughts while she was on her travels, many of the books she’d written. More importantly, many of her friends and contemporaries, and all her children are still around, all willing to talk about the extraordinary woman in their lives. In fact, Freda’s middle child, the actor Kabir Bedi, is toying with the idea of basing a movie on his mother. He’s had the notion for a long time, says Whitehead, and it’s still on his mind.
With all this so easily available to Whitehead, he was able to put together the fairly complete story of Freda Bedi without having to resort to much speculation, that bane of both biographers and the readers of biographies. This will be good, I grinned to myself after reading the introduction, and I jumped into the book.
By the time I finished it, I was wondering about two things. First, is it possible that even the most exciting life, if explored in detail, is actually as dull as the same old, same old nine-to-five lives most of us lead? And second, is speculation in a biography actually a good thing? Because there is no spark in this book. Whitehead’s version of Freda Bedi still ticked all my boxes, but it made me feel as though I were back in my classroom, lurching heavy-eyed through a textbook because it had to be done.
Let me assure you that in terms of content, there is nothing at all wrong with this book. We follow Freda Bedi from her early life as Freda Houlston, who lost her father in World War I, did exceedingly well at school, and showed strong determination in her character when asked, at the age of 17, by Oxford University to live in France for a while so she could study modern languages. Freda reveled in the international atmosphere of Oxford, spending time with students from British colonies, and beginning to understand the humiliation imposed upon people with ‘coloured’ skin. She met Baba Pyare Lal Bedi at Oxford, and within a short time, the two were a couple. They married just before Bedi went on to Germany for further studies (where they witnessed the Nazis in action), and thereafter moved to Lahore in what was then undivided India, where Freda was determined to be the perfect Punjabi wife and daughter-in-law.
In India, Freda made the freedom struggle her own. She and Bedi were committed communists who worked with the left wing of the Congress party, and like most Indian freedom fighters, both wife and husband were jailed. In the 1940s, the couple moved to Kashmir, which was struggling first against its Maharaja’s ideas of leadership, and then against Pakistani incursions. There, Freda joined a militia of women set up to defend the state against the invaders, and served as a spy
All these intense adventures ensured that Freda was very well-connected, and a trip to Burma in the 1950s set her on the Buddhist path. This was how she was able to persuade Prime Minister Jawaharhal Nehru to let her coordinate the country’s measures to help refugees from Tibet, and that led, finally, to her ordination as a Buddhist nun.
Read more: Did you know that Kabir Bedi doubled as a tourist guide while in Delhi University?
A story like Freda Bedi’s should sparkle, inspire, fire up the blood of its readers. That, unfortunately, does not happen with The Lives of Freda. Perhaps the author was too overwhelmed by the amount of material he had on his subject to be able to add spark to the story. Perhaps his original manuscript was so long that it had to be revised and cut several times, and therefore lost its edge. Whatever the reason, a story like Freda’s deserves much more than to be told in this dull, textbookish manner.
Reading The Lives of Freda is like winning a mega lottery and then seeing the government take most of the money away in taxes. You have just enough left for essential but boring matters like paying off the housing loan, but with little or no extra cash for travel or to buy books, you are in no other way enriched.