The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi by Vicki Mackenzie is an account of an extraordinary Derby-born woman Freda Houlston. Born in 1911, educated at Oxford and married in 1933 to Baba Bedi bringing her to India at the height of the freedom struggle for Independence. She met her husband during the local meetings of the Majlis, the Indian students’ society, and listened to debates about Gandhi and India’s quest for freedom. According to Andrew Whitehead ( who too is working on a biography of Freda Bedi ; Derby Telegraph & The Wire ) “she went to the more tumultuous October Club, where left-wing students gathered to oppose fascism and cheer on the hunger marchers. At lectures, she came across a well-built student – he was a champion hammer thrower – from Punjab, BPL (Baba) Bedi. He invited her to tea. Freda went along with a friend as a chaperone, as the rules required, and was charmed.”
Along with her husband she became a left-wing activist — her socialist spirit was never to leave her even in later years upon conversion to Buddhism. Her marriage took her through Lahore ( in undivided India), Kashmir, Delhi, and Dalhousie. She witnessed Partition and though a firm follower of Gandhi and his non-violent means of struggle when in Kashmir she joined the women’s militia — the Women’s Self Defence Corps — started by some feisty members of the Communist Party affiliated with Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference Party. Her husband was close to Sheikh Abdullah. Baba Bedi worked in the Kashmir administration “doing his part in promoting counterpropaganda” writing articles both in Kashmir and Delhi. The Bedi family spent five years in the state before the two men fell out in 1952 over their views on the Kashmir plebiscite, a political decision to let the people of Kashmir decide whether they wanted to join Pakistan or accede to India. She returned to Delhi to take on a government job as editor of Social Welfare, publication of the Central Social Welfare Board, part of the Ministry of Education. Social Welfare was written in English and translated into Hindi to reach as many people as possible. According to Vicki Mackenzie, Freda Bedi “chose with her heart — still wanting to help the poor and needy. The pay was low, but with her job came a government apartment”.
It was during a United Nations assignment to Burma that she had an epiphanic experience concerning Buddhism and decided to convert. She soon began to drift away from her material existence and in 1960s moved to Dalhousie where she established the Young Lamas Home School. She also gave shelter to the many Buddhist nuns who had fled Tibet after the Dalai Lama escaped. She created a system which went against the severely hierarchical and patriarchal structure of Buddhist monasteries but allowed the nuns to have a more democratic and responsible way of functioning.
Vicki Mackenzie documents this period of Freda Bedi’s life relying on extensive interviews with her three children — Ranga, the film actor Kabir Bedi and daughter, Guli — along with innumerable people who knew Freda. In fact she is unable to mask her surprise at how forthcoming everyone was with their recollections of Freda Bedi, sharing pictures and documents making Vicki remark that it was if this book was wanting to be written. Most importantly Vicki Mackenzie heard that the Dalai Lama himself would wonder why no book had ever been written as yet on Freda Bedi. Ever since going on a Buddhist retreat in 1976, Vicki Mackenzie’s writings have focused on Buddhism, reincarnation and role of women.
Even though Freda Bedi devoted the last twenty years of her life to Buddhism and left the family to work for its cause she remained extremely close to her children and husband. Her young daughter, Guli, who had been put into boarding school aged five recalls that every week punctually a letter would arrive from “mummy”. Even her sons knew that though they may have had an unorthodox upbringing, rich in experience but in financially straitened circumstances, they knew they could rely on their mother. For instance Kabir Bedi recounts he needed money to pay his fees at St. Stephen’s College and his mother advised him to ask a friend of theirs who readily gave the required amount. Her love for her family is also evident in a charming collection of poems she wrote for her eldest son, Ranga, called Rhymes for Ranga. It was published as a collection of rhymes in 2010.
Freda Bedi was the first European woman to convert to Buddhism. She was ordained in 1965. She is also credited with being the first nun to bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West. She was known as Sister Kechong Palmo although many Tibetans believed Freda to be an “emanation” of Tara, the female Buddha of Compassion in Action or the Divine Mother. Significantly whereever Freda went she was well-connected to the powers that be so was always able to get her way. In India, for instance, she knew politicians like the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira, diplomats and other prominent citizens. In England she counted among her friends Barbara Castle, a fiery left-wing cabinet minister in the 1960s and 70s. In fact when Freda returned to Delhi in 1979 to attend a world buddhist congress she stayed as a guest of the hoteliers Oberois at their five star luxury property. It was here that she passed away aged sixty-six years and was cremated on the Oberoi farm. It is believed that a couple of years later Freda Bedi was “reincarnated as a Tibetan girl, Jamyang Dolma Lama, the daughter of His Eminence Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, a respected lineage holder enthroned by the Sixteenth Karmapa. Born in Tibet, Beru Khyentse Rinpoche had known Freda Bedi well, and had set up his own center in Bodhgaya”.
Today it may seem commonplace to discuss Buddhism and encounter many celebrity converts such as Freda Bedi. But historically her contribution to Buddhism is extraordinarly. Her conversion and single-minded focus to do good constructively by the Tibetan Buddhists, soon after their spiritual leader — the Dalai Lama — fled Tibet for India was unusual for the day. As she was not only committed to the cause but would do anything in her power including calling upon her friends in senior positions to help her. Her persistence paid off and she was able to leave a well-defined legacy as is apparent in the Buddhist institutions she created at Dalhousie.
More than a century after she was born the important influence Freda Bedi had on Buddhists is slowly gaining traction. For instance Beyond Mud Walls a short documentary by a distant relative of hers, Nalini Paul, discusses the theatre performance she has conceptualised based Freda Bedi’s book.
Vicki Mackenzie’s biography of Freda Bedi is readable and well-researched. The effort to collect information to build a portrait of a formidable woman so many years after her death could not have been easy. Yet she did it. Despite Vicki Mackenzie’s fascinating account of an Englishwoman who made India her home during the Indian freedom struggle, it is quickly overshadowed by the stronger and better narrated time of Freda Bedi’s life as a Buddhist nun.
Vicki Mackenzie The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun Shambala Publications, Boulder, USA, 2017. Pb. pp.190 $16.95
13 May 2017
The incredibly beautiful Mughal monument, Humayun’s Tomb, was recently restored by the Aga Khan Trust. The project was carried out in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, and supported by the TATA Trusts has not only conserved the monument, but has also aided in the revival of traditional building skills, materials, and techniques. It took many years ( 2008 – 2015) was done with great care under the supervision of Ratish Nanda. Now a book has been published by Mapin India for AKTC documenting the magnificent work done in restoring the monument, a blueprint for the Taj Mahal. Here is a short video and a Facebook clip on the restoration. Discovery Channel and National Geographic too showed a documentary on this path-breaking project. According to the book description:
The Humayun’s Tomb-Nizamuddin area, inhabited by a vibrant local community, is visited by millions of tourists and pilgrims each year. Conservation works being undertaken on the monuments in this area have aimed to re-define standard conservation practice in India by setting benchmarks in using a craft-based approach, setting documentation standards, using a participatory and multi-disciplinary approach, and using the conservation initiative as a tool towards improving quality of life for local communities. This book aims to inform the general public about the discipline of conservation and the rationale behind the successful conservation initiative and makes an argument for change in conservation approach in India: from isolated monuments to an urban approach that includes concern for the setting; from a ‘tender-based’ approach to a quality-concerned method; amongst other factors. Founded and guided by His Highness the Aga Khan, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture projects promote the conservation and re-use of buildings and public spaces in historic cities in ways that can spur social, economic and cultural development.
Ratish Nanda has led the multi-disciplinary team implementing the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative since the project’s inception in 2006. Prior to this, he was responsible for the Bagh-e-Babur restoration and the Humayun’s Tomb garden restoration, also at AKTC.
I interviewed Ratish Nanda ( via email). Here are the excerpts.
Though updates are continuously expected and have been done with the National Conservation Policy notified in 2014 by the Archaeological Survey of India, Many of the principles of the 1923 manual remain valid – and these have been highlighted in the book. The quote you provide is one such quote the validity of which remains and as such during the Humayun’s Tomb conservation effort every effort was made to ensure that original – Mughal material is retained. For instance the section on tile work illustrates where even tiles that had lost their glaze were retained. As the book explains repeatedly, what was in fact removed were inappropriate 20th century repairs causing damage to the building – such as cement plaster and cement concrete on the roof. This happened because craftsmen were no longer involved as the British replaced them with engineers, architects and archaeologists and nobody knew better.
I think the new National Conservation Policy already addresses new issues such as use of digital technology to document the entire process of conservation. It should be documented prior to, during and after conservation in maps, drawings, photographs, digital records and field notes so as to create records of interventions. The documentation should capture various stages of intervention and all relevant details. This will be useful from the point of view of understanding all past and current interventions in the future. The revised policy also encourages public private partnership in heritage conservation and management. The restoration of the Humayun’s Tomb is a good example of this as it is a collaboration between AKTC, ASI & TATA Trusts.
The project has taken over a decade; the book is an attempt to put the project learnings in the public domain as well as explain to interested stakeholders what the conservation process was. This is shared with the belief that both conservation professionals as well as officials, administrators, donors, students (history, architecture, conservation, and archaeology) could use this as a case study/ model and more such projects could be undertaken.
Kabul has also been published. Detailed documentation of the conservation process is best practice. These significant sites belong to the people and its important that anyone interested has access to information on what has been done and how. For instance in Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme: Strategies for Urban Regeneration.
All monuments where conservation works have been undertaken have been treated with the same level of attention. What we have demonstrated is a truly Indian model for conservation based on utilising traditional building crafts, materials and master craftsmen as well as a multi-disciplinary team. This is the first instance in India of a private agency undertaking conservation works which are cofounded by a another private agency – the TATA Trusts
We are still making tiles – they are required on at least 40 monuments in the Nizamuddin area as well as several more countrywide. Furthermore it is hoped that the craftsmen will be able to make tiles for the souvenir market as well. The tile-making craft had died in India; its revival has cost a fortune and it is hoped some of the youth will have the initiative to make an industry out of it as there is a significant demand for these tiles – from both conservation purposes and growing demand from the market.
Awareness is extremely important and this book is one tool towards it. During the conservation effort we have produced other publications – such as the children’s book of which 60,000 copies have been sold till date. Youth from Nizamuddin basti usually walk through 6-7000 school children each year. There is also a very active Facebook page.
We hope to produce more such technical books to serve as case studies. Our objective is to share the knowledge we have generated as part of the project.
Undertaking India’s first privately undertaken conservation effort has been a challenge as many suspicions have to be addressed and a proper conservation process established. By far the most exciting outcome has been the recent expansion of the Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage site to include 11 additional monuments on which Aga Khan Trust for Culture undertook conservation.
There are portions of the building where the original treatment had been lost – such as the tomb chamber – where until the mid-20th century the walls were tiled and the dome gilded – here, with the lack of evidence, conservation effort could not restore the original builders intention. Also the lack of historical accounts that either document or hint at this process are not enough to justify restoration. Conservationists need in-situ or clear photographic evidence to emulate the processes.
The book lists all the learnings – established that craftsmen need to be in the centre of the conservation effort; conservation is as much responsibility of the private sector as of government; conservation decisions should be based on an understanding of the site and its significance. The conservation process established – including repeated independent peer reviews – is replicable for any project, anywhere in the country or beyond. Also, we must document all such efforts and explain the rationale for these in a written statement. Something that will explain the condition of the monument, the rational for conservation works and outlines the process followed.
We remain available to assist the Government of India wherever they would like us to support an urban conservation effort.
11 April 2017
( This is an email invitation I received from Namita Gokhale, Co-Director, Jaipur Literature Festival. I am circulating the invitation with permission.)
1 August 2014
Travel writing has always had a special place in literature. Readers have been fascinated by stories of other places, cultures, people. In the past it was understandable when there were text-heavy descriptions of people, dresses, cities, architecture, food, vegetation and terrain. But today? To read modern-day travelogues when it is the “image age”, the most popular news feeds on social media platforms are photographs. It is akin to being immersed in a National Geographic-like environment 24×7. There are websites such as Flickr, Pinterest, Mashable, Tumblr, and YouTube, wonderful repositories of images and movie clips uploaded by institutions, media firms and individuals. So to read three books — Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from Europe in Crisis, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi and Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes — was an intriguing experience. Except for Sam Miller’s book that is peppered with black and white images laid within the text, the other two books are straightforward narratives. I would deem them as travelogues written in the “classical tradition” of relying solely upon the narrator/author taking the reader along a personal journey through a country/city different to the land of their birth. They make for a sharp perspective, intelligent analysis and just a sufficient mish-mash of history with a commentary on current social, political and economic developments, without really becoming dry anthropological studies. The writing style in all three books is lucid and easy.
Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan is a fascinating account of her travels through Europe from 2009 onward–at a time of economic gloom. It is part-memoir, part-journalism and part-analysis ( mostly economic) of what plagues Europe. It has anecdotes, plenty of statistics and footnotes, accounts of the meetings, conferences she was able to attend as journalist and have conversations with influential policy makers and politicians. After spending a few years in Beijing she moved to Brussels, so is able to draw astute observations about the decline in Europe. Having been a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from China, Europe and South East Asia, mostly on business stories from the “frontline” of action, she has an insightful understanding of the depressing scenario in Europe. It is a book worth reading.
Rana Dasgupta’s Capital is about Delhi, the capital of India. Delhi has been settled for centuries, but became the capital of British India in 1911. The first wave of migrants who formed the character of modern Delhi came soon after the country became Independent in 1947. Over the years Delhi grew but at a moderately slow pace. Twenty years after post-liberalisation ( 1991), Delhi transformed so rapidly that the old world, old rhythms and culture became quietly invisible. Delhi continued to be a melting pot of immigrants. It became a city synonymous with wealth, material goods, luxury and uncivil behaviour, bordering on crassness. It is a city of networking and networked individuals. Rana Dasgupta’s book is a meander through the city. He meets a lot of people — the nouveau riche, the first wave of migrant settlers post-1947, members of the old city families who bemoan the decline of tehzeeb in the city. Capital is a commentary on Delhi of the twenty-first century, a city that is unrecognisable to the many who have been born and brought up here. Rana Dasgupta moved to the city recently — over a decade ago–but this brings a clarity to his narrative that a Delhiwallah may or may not agree with. It certainly is a narrative that will resonate with many across the globe since this is the version many want to hear — the new vibrant India, Shining India, the India where the good days ( “acche din”) are apparent. There is “prosperity”, clean broad streets, everything and anything can be had at the right price here. It is a perspective. Unfortunately the complexity of Delhi, the layers it has, the co-existence of poor and rich, the stories that the middle classes have to share are impossible to encapsulate in a book of 400-odd pages. It is a readable book that captures a moment in the city’s long history. It will be remembered, discussed, critiqued, and will remain for a long time to come in the literature associated with Delhi. (The cover design by Aditya Pande is stupendous! )
A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller is a gentle walk through the history of India, mostly written as a memoir. William Dalrymple’s blurb for the book is apt —a “love letter to India”. When India was celebrating its fiftieth year of Independence there was a deluge of books and anthologies reflecting, discussing the history of India. To read Sam Miller’s book is to get a delightful and idiosyncratic understanding of this large landmass known as India, a puzzle few have been able to fathom. The author is not perturbed by doing a history of the things he truly likes about the country or that he has been intrigued by conversations he probably had. To his credit he has done the legwork as expected of a professional journalist and discovered people, regions, histories, spaces, cities for himself. For instance he states he is an “aficionado of cemetries and of tombs”, but discovered “many Indian are scared of cemetries — except when they house the tombs of ancient emperors and their consorts. They often find my desire to visit graveyards a little strange, as if I were a necrophile or had a perverse desire to disturb the ghosts of the dead.”( p.232) A fascinating observation since it is true — cemeteries are strangely peaceful oasis of calm. If you say that out aloud in India, people will look at you in a strange manner.
Modern-day travelogues are many, available in print and digital. Two recent examples stand out. Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey into Congo about his time in the African country. Fabulous stuff! Very reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s writing ( especially his diaries) written in Africa. And the other is a recent essay that physicist and well-known speculative fiction writer, Vandana Singh wrote on her blog, “Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF” ( http://vandanasingh.wordpress.
6 July 2014
Pallavi Aiyar Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 320 Rs. 599
Rana Dasgupta Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 460 Rs. 799
Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 599
In Nov 2003, Paro Anand and I were invited by the French Government to attend the salon de livre jeunesse. It was a wonderful trip. While there Paro was invited to tell stories in a French bookstore. I was fortunate to attend the session with Paro. It is nearly a decade ago and I have some wonderful pictures from that particular evening, including one of a child sitting under a table listening to Paro with his mouth open. Subsequently Paro has narrated stories on various platforms, to multi-lingual audiences. In the post below she shares some of these experiences.
I decided to ask Paro Anand to write this note after realising that Jumpstart 2013 would focus on “Speaking in Tongues”.( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home) It is a platform meant to discuss children’s literature across languages and address the idea of bibliodiversity. What better way to do it than hear from a practitioner of the trade, who has done exactly this…told stories in multiple languages to various audiences around the world. Unfortunately Paro Anand will not be attending Jumpstart this year.
Storytelling is all about language, about words – right? I thought so too. And if someone told me that it was possible to tell stories to an audience who did not understand a word of what you were saying, well, that would be absurd. I thought so too.
Except that I have been put into this situation on several occasions – four times, in fact. The first time was early in my storytelling career where I was faced with an audience of Telugu-speaking children to whom i was a ‘firangi’. I flung my body into service and mimed and acted out every word. They got it. Well, most of it.
The next time was in a bookstore in Paris. I had a few animal stories prepared, but the young, French-speaking audience was totally unfamiliar with English. So i told the story in Hindi – and Punjabi. I peppered it with a handful of French words and the kids were singing Punjabi songs by the end of the session! Armed with that success, I repeated the experiment in Geneva, Switzerland, this time along with an Indian storyteller who also spoke German and French. I performed in Hindi and Punjabi and she answered my questions in German and French. It’s not as if the kids only understood half the session. They had a grip on the story as a whole and many said they’d enjoyed hearing a story in another language. I asked which part they liked best and they said the lion’s part. Not the French part, just the lion’s part!
But the crowning glory in multi-language crown was doing a session with a Zulu South African performance teller called Gcina. We met for the first time on stage with the audience already assembled. I had no idea which stories she was going to tell, I did not know her work and she did not know mine. But the kids were Hindi speaking so she needed a ‘go-between’. We were both game, though and that’s all that mattered. She launched into her story using English with a bit of Swahili where it would be apparent what the words were and I mirrored her action for action, word for word. It was magical, for me most of all. By the end, the audience was shouting out the Zulu words and Gcina was answering in Hindi!
Which only goes to show that it’s the heart and soul of a story that we absorb, the words are only a vehicle. I have personally enjoyed hitching a ride on an unknown vehicle and discovering where that journey will land me.
27 Aug 2013
(C) Paro Anand
Arundhati Deosthale, co-founder A&A Book Trust, writes about her experience in translating the Mimi series into Hindi and her collaboration with award-winning German illustrator Julia Kaergel.
A & A Book Trust feels privileged to have had this opportunity to introduce two extraordinarily talented women in children’s literature. In 2009, I met Doris Dorrie in Munich. All those who know German cinema know her as a maker of off-beat film maker, a novelist and a teacher in film institute. It was a pleasure to discover that she writes books for children too. She presented me copies of her Mimi picture books series illustrated by Julia Kaergel, and the rest is history. I had till then seen Julia’s work in children’s libraries and had heard about the various prizes she had been honoured with…
Mimi series just couldn’t have gone to any other illustrator other than Julia, her insights into child-psychology, her uncanny skills to go beyond the text, and sense of fun have contributed brilliantly to the success of the series in Germany, Switzerland and also in India. Mimi came in to Hindi directly from German, as a part of the ‘Girl- child’ special picture books project and went on straight to the villages through Room to Read libraries in 8 Indian states, including Uttaranchal. The acceptance of Mimi across the cultures; especially the interiors of India, among the first generation to see the picture books speaks of the vividness and universal appeal of Julia’s art. We did have to make two minor changes though, namely deleting the two references to pork and beef, when Mimi shops with her mother. But Julia accepted these willingly, appreciating the sensitivities of two communities in India. Chirag, an NGO working for education and rural development, runs a primary school in Shitala, a cluster of villages in the Nainital district of Uttaranchal. The Chirag school kids picked up Mimi for play-acting. It was such a pleasure watching the children draw and make paper pyjamas and a la Mimi to wear these upside down on their heads. They raised some really interesting questions for Julia and Doris, the makers of this series like Mimi who keeps things from parents for quite some time, is that OK?
How come that her parents don’t seem to be minding her being such a menace?
Is she a ‘good’ girl or a ‘naughty’ one?
These were the questions which made the teachers and parents think aloud on the difference in parenting and schooling between our two respective cultures. One could say that the children were a bit envious of Mimi whose imagination runs amok in both the books, and parents surely did some learning playfully. And this surely is an amazing response to a picture book!!
Arundhati Deosthale and Julia Kaergel will be in conversation on 29 August 2013 @ Jumpstart. Julia Kaergel will also be conducting an illustrator’s masterclass on 30 Aug 2013. Details available at http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home
(C) Arundhati Deosthale
23 Aug 2013