Poems Posts

“It’s Time to Rhyme: Poems for Kids of All Ages” by Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan

What is not to like in this book! It is utterly brilliant. Stupendous!

With offerings from sonnets in iambic pentameter, to limericks, acrostics, and villanelles, It’s Time to Rhyme is the perfect introduction to the joys of poetry for readers of all ages. Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan should consider writing a long poem for children. A story well told is heard far and wide. Format does not matter. The few poems collected in this slim volume are a guarded taster of what she is capable of! It is high time publishers broke shackles of the staid expectations of educators and parents and brought the fun back in storytelling. Let it be wild. Let it be nonsensical. Let it be joyous!

3 May 2022

“Knotted Grief” by Naveen Kishore

unannounced visitor
I dropped by into my dream
careful not to awaken the buried whispers
I lit a candle by their grave
startling the slumbering shadows into a frenzy of activity
bats taking wing flying blindly into one another
this in turn caused the whispers to awaken
look me in the eye
and begin to do what they did best

bear witness

Legendary publisher Naveen Kishore, founder, Seagull Books, has published his debut collection of poetry called Knotted Grief. It has been published by Speaking Tiger Books. He is the recipient of the Goethe Medal, a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and was awarded the 2021 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature. Those who are fortunate to communicate with him directly and regularly, have been aware of his talents as a poet for a very long time. His emails are interspered with poetry or at times are only written in verse. The manner in which he responds to situations, events, moments, emotions are well described in his poems but also the way in which he arranges the words on the page. The visual element is as important as the content, ideas and emotions. For years, I have asked Naveen Kishore to get his poems published. I have always found the poems fantastic. It is a gift to be able to compose poems easily focussing upon the reader, so it always seem as if the poems are special. So I was delighted when the publication of Knotted Grief was announced by Speaking Tiger Books.

In Knotted Grief, the collection of poems are categorised according to “Coda”, “Kashmiriyat”, “Street Full of Widows”, “Selected Griefs”, “Tilted Sky”, “Under the Skin” and “Birdcall”. The poems are of varying lengths, from a cluster of words to verses scattered on the page. The sparse arrangement on the page ensures that the reader is absorbed by the few words on the page.

Upon reading the volume, I posed a few questions to Naveen Kishore. Here is the slightly edited version of the Q&A.

  1. How did this collection happen?
    The collection happened by accident when my publisher friend Xavier Hennekinne of Gazebo ‘discovered’ that I write poetry by finding some of my poems in online poetry journals. he asked my if I had a book and I said no I have many folders with poems I have been writing for the last ten years! The reason fr not having a manuscript was simple enough. I was so busy writing I couldn’t stop, take stock, and put one together. This was solved by my friend and translator Tess Lewis who offered to select a first draft so that publishers could read it like a book! I went on to share this with Xavier at Gazebo and he in turn shared it with his poetry editor Phil Day, who is himself a poet and a painter. Phil then requested I send hi the four hundred odd poems I had set aside while selecting this collection and immersed himself in these for a few months and came up with Knotted Grief as you read it now!! Gazebo will publish on April 1st. The Speaking Tiger edition happened when I shared the Australian page set version except that Ravi selected more poems because he wanted an additional thirty pages. There is no collaboration between Seagull and Speaking Tiger! I offered my manuscript as any first time author to a publisher I admire. Seagull has nothing to do with it except do what we always do spread the word for friends in publishing!
  2. Did you compose poetry specifically for this volume or did you select from previous compositions?
    No. I have been writing on the human condition for many years. Kashmir is one theme but it could easily be Palestine. There is no recent or previous. You write every day. Like music. It is all a continuous riyaz.
  3. Why did you focus upon grief? Is it one of the offshoots of the pandemic?
    I didnt. Choose grief. It is usually the other way round. Grief does the choosing, if I may put it like that. You are visited upon by loss of friends close ones in an ever widening or lessening circle of affection. People close to you die. Go away. So you embrace their memory. Similarly at a political, national versus personal level their is grief that springs from what we as people do to each other. Again the ‘human condition’, ‘Kashmir’ ,’Palestine’ Interchangeable grieving. The poems and yes grieving is never without hope.
  4. You have always written fabulous poetry. Why did you choose to publish your poetry now and not earlier?
    I cannot as a publisher publish my own books! So one waited for someone to ‘discover’ my poems. Takes time! Besides to me the act of writing is more vital.
  5. How many translations is this poetry being published in? Who are the publishers? Are you supervising the translations or are you letting the poems speak for themselves?
    So far Rajkamal Prakashan Samuh very generously offered to do the Hindi; Ravi Dee Cee of DC books is doing the Malayalam; Papyrus is doing the Marathi; Unistar in the Punjabi; Chintan in Bengali; I am reaching out in Tamil, Kannada and Assamese too. Let see. Not really supervising but making myself available for translators should they wish to talk about things. Complete freedom to take liberties as long as the essence of the ‘target’ language is hospitable to what I may be attempting in English. So yes the poems have to touch the translators.
  6. As far as I know, the arrangement of the words on the page are as critically important as the poem itself. How will you manage this quality control in the translated texts especially if you are unfamiliar with the destination language?
     I am flexible. It will boil down to the combination of the translator and editor in the language edition to do the best they feel they can to convey render share the original thought in their own languages. This means they have the freedom to lay out the poems the way they wish.
  7. You are a publisher known for publishing extensive translations. Are there any guidelines/sensibilities that you have honed as a publisher over the years that you would ensure are followed in translating your poetry as well?
    None. I leave it to the publisher, editor, and translators who become the first sensitive readers in that language. Having said that I may be able to help fine hone the languages I know, Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali.
  8. Would you change the collections ever so slightly in every language or will the same edition be made available in all editions?
    I think mostly the Indian edition is being followed. I would more or less treat that as the one I would want translated. But open to the variant should it happen organically or for reasons that are yet to come up.

I truly liked Knotted Grief. Perhaps you will too. Buy it. Read it.

8 Feb 2022

Shikhandin “After Grief”

Shikhandin never ceases to amaze me. She writes. That’s it. She is unafraid of experimenting with forms that are most suitable to her expression. She is impossible to slot as a writer belonging to a specific category. Her creativity gushes forth. She commands the reader to engage. Her observation is acute. Her commentary perceptive. She is unique. Using the feminine pronoun is probably a disservice to her since she consciously chose the nom de plume to mask any gendered reading of her works. Nevertheless, I can only urge you to read her works. Her short stories, novels, and now her poetry in this exquisite volume published by Dibyajyoti Sarma, RedRiver. Sarma’s sensitivity towards Shikhandin’s poems is evident in the care with which he has laid out her poems on the page. There is something magical about the reading experience of “AfterGrief”, poetry about mourning but the period in which she revised the poems, the pandemic, the poems took on a different hue. Instead of dissecting her poems, here are a few samples:

Death is the violence of silence
tearing up your day
with an unscrambled scream
“Death”


There is a man standing on the shore, looking
past the waves, frisky, frothy and white.
He is looking towards the brightening
horizon. He is weeping.
He is weeping silently
with an oddly self-conscious sort
of abandon. He is holding on
to a plastic bag crammed with indecipherable
things and a motor cycle helmet.
His sandals feet are digging,
making washable prints on the wet sand.
He is pretending to flick off the grit from his cheeks.
“Man on the Shore”


After death’s ceremony there is numbness
After funeral’s festivity there is stillness
Afterwards, when the house has emptied, they arrive
A Long and loyal line of days, to follow you around
Twilight days to softly follow you around, mother
Sentries of quietude — a river of boundless, soundless solitude.

Tell me, how much of grief can a human heart
Store beneath the liquid of a tranquil face?
“After the passing of father”


In the aftermath, when fire’s rage
has cooled to skin-scorching Ash,
the wood ones of dawn will break
your heart with their absences.
No deluge can dampen the spirits
of free creatures, but fires are fierce
opponents of joy . . . .

She was a woman who had loved
the natural world. Speaking
in hushed tones
of the miracle of snakes birthing
in a grove. After the garden
was gone, she took
to growing cacti and succulents. A dark
green one with cylindrical shoots
still remains. Growing from one pot
into another, passing from house
to house, but never yours, until now.
“Woodnotes”


But it is the penultimate poem in this collection, “Crossing”, that is worth reading, sharing and discussing. (Photographed below.) I truly hope that one day, one day, Tishani Doshi and Shikhandin will be in conversation with each other about the crying need to be poets especially in these times. Perhaps, Ranjit Hoskote can be asked to be in conversation too. All three poets have published collections of poems in 2021 that will stand out for years to come; it is not just a witnessing, it is as if they are fulfilling their roles of poets as has been inherited from Classical times — their poems are recording history, telling stories and bordering almost on a prayer, urging people to remember their rich past and live in hope for the future, but not be passive agents in the present.

24 Nov 2021

“The Lost Spells” by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

We gave this beauteous book to our daughter as a Christmas present. She loved it. Squealed with delight. She loves poetry. She loves painting. She loves nature. This is a splendidly elegant and quiet mix of all the elements. It gives one immense pleasure, peace and happiness reading it.

For me, the poem and gorgeous illustration of a daisy chain brought back memories of my childhood. My mother had taken my twin and me to the hill station Dalhousie. She had been instructed by my grandfather to pack up his childhood home, Snowdon and Shantikunj, as his mother had recently passed away. It was a bittersweet experience but mum made it memorable by taking us for long walks through the forest, instructing us to keep the doors bolted at night in case the panthers arrived and of course waiting out the tremendous racket the langoor raid created on our tin roofs. A particularly precious memory was seeing mum get very excited when she came across a patch of daisies by the road winding through through forest. So we plonked ourselves in the grassy-daisy patch, by the roadside and strung daisy chains, while madly waving to passers by. It was a fun, fun day.

Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane have the incredible gift of making magic together. In their own right they are astonishingly talented souls but together their creativity sparkles and this shines in The Lost Spells ( Hamish Hamilton). They are also very fortunate in their publishers being very generous and supportive in the book production. Little details beginning with the gold foiling on the cover to the richness of colours used, pocket size of the book that is unheard of nowadays as it is not an economically viable size to produce, the gold bookmark stitched into the spine and the sumptuous spread of illustrations is an utter delight to behold.

It is such a precious book at all times but particularly during the pandemic. We could do with such moments of joy!

11 Jan 2021

“Shimmering Spring”

Shimmering Spring ( Hawakal Publishers) is an interesting collection of poems and prose edited by Kiriti Sengupta. 39 contributors from around the world but mostly Indians. It is refreshing to see the arrangement of poets is alphabetically and not necessarily according to some perceived hierarchy of established and upcoming voices. A beautifully produced edition with very bright paintings by Pintu Biswas. The layout is generous and respectful to every single poet featured in the book. It is the kind of book that makes you want to read the poems over and over again till you zone in completely to what the text is saying and shut out the world. It works. My only quibble is the manner in which at times the text has been plonked on to the page, trickling into the artwork and thus disrupting the reading experience. Nevertheless, an edition that many will return to for the extraordinary variety of poetry.

8 Jan 2021

Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad”, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

Vasily Grossman”s Stalingrad is a prequel to Life And Fate. Life and Fate (Russian edition, Soviet Union, 1988) was translated from Russian into English in 1985 by Robert Chandler and Stalingrad ( 1952, Russian edition) in 2019 by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. Life and Fate had been completed by Grossman before he succumbed to cancer in 1964 but the English translation was published before permission was granted for the Russian edition. It became possible after glasnost.

Vasily Grossman was a correspondent in World War Two. His novels borrow heavily from all that he witnessed. Recently, Robert Chandler wrote a magnificent essay, “Writer who caught the reality of war” ( The Critic, July/August 2020 ). Grossman was a correspondent for Red Star, a daily military newspaper as important as Pravda and Izvestia, the official newspapers or the Communist Party and the Supreme Soviet. It was a paper read by both military and civilians. Chandler writes “According to David Ortenberg, it’s chief editor, Grossman’s 12 long articles about the Battle of Stalingrad not only won him personal acclaim but also helped make ‘Red Star’ itself more popular. Red Army soldiers saw Grossman as one of them– someone who chose to share their lives rather than merely to praise Stalin’s military strategy from the safety of an army headquarters far from the front line.”

Stalingrad is a massive book to read at nearly 900 pages. I read Constance Garnett’s translation of War and Peace in three days flat but Stalingrad was far more difficult to read. Perhaps because it was written so close in time to the events it describes. Within a decade of the Stalingrad blockade by the Nazis, Grossman’s novel had been published. Whereas “War and Peace” was written fifty years after the events fictionalised by Tolstoy. It makes a difference to the flavour of literature. Reading “Stalingrad” during the lockdown is a terrifying experience. More so because today nations around the world are dominated by right wing politicians who see no wrong in implementing xenophobic policies. The parallels with Grossman’s accounts are unmistakable. Having said that I am very glad I read Grossman”s novel. It is a detailed account of the blockade using the polyphonic literary technique. Sometimes it can get bewildering to keep track of so many characters. Also because there are chunks in the text over which Grossman does not have a very good grasp. His details of the battlefield or the stories about the Shaposhnikovs are his strongest moments in the novel. Perhaps because the war scenes are first hand experiences, much of which is brilliantly accounted for by Chandler in his recent article. And the weaker portions were written during Stalinism and Grossman probably had to be careful about what he wrote for fear of being censored.

After reading Stalingrad, I reread portions of Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin’s A Book of the Blockade ( English translation by Hilda Perham, Raduga Publishers, Moscow, 1983; Russian edition, 1982). This book is about the nine hundred day siege too. The auhors recreate the event by referring to diaries, letters, poems written during the blockade, and survivors’ testimonies. They also interviewed “the strong and the weak, and those who had been saved and those who had saved others”. At times it felt as if there was little difference reading Grossman’s novel or these eye witness accounts that had been gathered by Adamovich and Granin.

These are very powerful books. I am glad the translations exist. Perhaps this kind of war literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially during the lockdown but it is highly recommended. Sometimes it is easier to understand our present by hearkening back to the past. These books certainly help!

Moscow, 1942. Summer.
There were several reasons why people felt calmer … it is impossible to remain very long in a state of extreme nervous tension; nature simply doesn’t allow this.

Stalingrad

7 July 2020

Book Post 35: 21 April – 19 May 2019 / Trade list

Book Post 35 is being uploaded after a month. It focuses on the trade list. This include some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

20 May 2019

Interview with instapoet Nikita Gill

Alice in Wonderland 

Alice’s rabbit hole began when she entered her father’s library and picked up one of the books she was forbidden to read. In it, the words were flavoured with anger and terror and beauty and everything she hadn’t tasted yet in her young life. People revolting, war, famine, anger at the aristocracy, compassionate philosophers writing famous ideas and wild theories. 

Wonderland emerged when Alice found her love for reading, and even better, acting on what she read. …

She scorned the idea that young ladies of that time should not do what she did. Make change and make waves and create a world more equal for everyone that lives in it. She was more concerned about making a change and in every little way she could find, she would. 

                                                                                                            Wild Embers, pp. 68-69

Nikita Gill is a British-Indian writer and poet living in the south of England. With a huge online following, her words have entranced hearts and minds all over the world. Wild Embers (2017) was her first book. I discovered the hugely popular Instapoet poetry in print, not on social media. It were the print editions that caught my attention primarily because her book publicists sent the beautifully designed editions of Wild Embers  and Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul.  Strong poetry that is a pleasure to read for its sharply articulated ideas and representation of strong, independent, and thinking women characters especially in the retelling of the age-old fairytales. In fact Fierce Fairytales was whisked away by my young daughter as her own! I was a little surprised at her action as I was not sure how much of the poetry she would understand. Yet she surprised me pleasantly by getting the gist of the stories. She may not have got the layered meaning but she got the gist. It speaks volumes of Nikita Gill’s skill as a poet to be able to connect across generations.  Unsurprisingly she has a legion of followers on social media: Facebook (109k), Instagram ( 478K), Twitter ( 26.6K) and Tumblr 

Hachette India helped faciliate this email interview.

1. How and why did you decide to become a poet? 

When I was 13 years old, I was introduced to the work of Robert Frost through English class. There was something incredible in capturing such a wide span of emotion inside a single poem that rattled my soul and I felt a deep connection with it. Soon after, my nani (maternal grandmother) gave me my very own copy of Sukhmani Sahib and the hymns and verses there made me realise how poetry and prayer were not dissimilar, each one crafted from air to create something beautiful in and of itself. This was what made me fall in love with and want to write poetry.

2. How long does it take you to write a poem?

Genuinely speaking I am never done writing my poems. I think it was Da Vinci who said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”, and I resonate with that deeply. I frequent my old journals often, and rewrite pieces that I wrote years ago. I have a fondness for visiting an old thought with a fresh mind and a newer heart. I edit my manuscripts over and over again until I have to give them up. On a good day, a first draft will take about 6 hours, and rewrites take longer.

3. You are a huge success on social media. You are one of the few Instapoets who is known worldwide with a celebrity following too. But traditionally publishers are hesitant to publish poetry for the book gets easily read in a store or can be easily copied. How do you manage your poetry posts online from being plagiarized or shared without acknowledgement?

There are battles you can fight and battles you can’t. Plagiarism is a difficult thing to battle when your intellectual property is out on the internet. People get inspired by things, when we are finding our voices, our work tends to be clichéd. The easiest way for me is to write new things which I’m not seeing done around me right now. Fairytales verse retellings, writing about my very specific experiences with Partition and being Kashmiri and Punjabi, and my love for the night sky. The point is to keep reinventing yourself and keeping your head above the water. It’s also the only way to become a better creator.

4. Your primary audience are on social media. Do you find writing poetry for publication on paper is any way different to putting out posts in cyberspace? How does it affect your style of poetry? Would you say that writing for an online audience is predominantly performance poetry but it’s tone has to change for consumption in print? Do you edit the poems before the print publication or do you publish the poems as was first put out on social media? 

It’s interesting because I always thought my primary audience was on social media. But my sales figures show an even split between bookstores and internet sales. Social media is also a very different realm than to paper. You’re fostering a community there. Thoughts, ideas, friendships – also there is close interaction with your audience which you don’t get with a book. I have always said that the community in the comments section is the most magnetic thing about posting your work, unfiltered, online. I wouldn’t call it performance simply because performance poetry is such a beautiful craft in and of itself (the poets on Button who are powerhouses for instance). I would call it “confessionalist bite-sized poetry” which exists to cause a reaction, a thought, a feeling. When I write for a book, the work is edited and reedited many times before I am happy with the story it tells, whereas on the digital platform, I predominantly share excerpts or aphorisms.

5. Do you find that interacting regularly with your readers on social media influences your poetry as well as selection of themes?

I think I have a huge responsibility towards my readers to ensure my platform remains a safe space for them to share their experiences. My first allegiance is to marginalized people and survivors of trauma and I ensure posts contain trigger warnings. I don’t let it affect my work for the simple reason that the people who follow me only follow me because they enjoy the work I already put out. I need to be true to myself to be true to them. I don’t post at any particular time of the day or daily. Just when I have a fleeting thought to put something up or create something. It’s all so much more organic that way.

6. Who are the poets who have influenced you the most?

I have a fascination for the works of Emily Dickson, Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Pritam, Walt Whitman, Anne Carson, Emily Berry – this list is non exhaustive. I think the more older poetry we read, the better we learn how to truly see that poetry is a very vast subject and means very different things for different people.

7. What are the forms of poetry you prefer to read and write in? 

I like to read every form of poetry – there are so many genres to enjoy and such a rich world of poets to discover. Recently, I’ve been experimenting more and more with lyric poetry and moving away from free verse which has been my form for so long. Lyric poetry is far more based on regular meter and it’s teaching me a lot to try and learn how to write it.

8. Your poems seem to be in free verse with a “fludity” about the stories. Do you “work” at this craft or does it evolve on its own when you are writing?

It does evolve on its own. I have to often stop myself from rhyming but the poem does exactly what it wants to do without permission from me. I’ve found that it is best not to fight it, fighting it leads to writers block. So I just go with it instead. And then edit like I am own worst critic (because truly, I am. I don’t know anyone who has ever sworn or yelled at me as much as my inner critic has.).

9. Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was very clear that his poetry was meant to be meditative and it is the reason why he developed the inscape technique. It forces the reader to engage with the poems. Whereas your poetry is far easier to read but the ideas of love, feminism and independent women that you share are powerful. Do you, like Hopkins, wish for something equally transformative wrought in the reader after engaging with your poetry?

Absolutely, but I do think that will take time. I am still young in my writing journey and discovering my voice. To be truly transformative is to not only find your voice but have complete of command over it. Whilst I have discovered what I want to say, what messages I want to put out, I feel like I am just at the very beginning of honing my craft. I feel like language shouldn’t be something that is overly difficult to read, but it should make the reader feel changed when they have read a thought a certain way.

10. How did wonderfully sharp and witty Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir your Soul come about?

I think Fierce Fairytales was something I was always meant to write. The idea within the book all germinates from a single thought: the incredible magic we seek in our environments, in other people, is already within us, and we must seek it out. This idea has been within all my books but with Fierce Fairytales I got to explore it, and tell the stories of the villains who I genuinely believe have so much more to say than just “we are evil people doing evil things”. I enjoyed writing this book thoroughly, so much so that it has been the seeds for multiple new projects which are presently in development.

7 December 2018 

Nikita Gill “Fierce Fairy Tales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul”

‘You thought I must be in need of saving? Because you are in need of a wife? How archaic and condescending.’

The prince clears his throat and then says, ‘Fair princess, I will do whatever I can tp break the curse that turns you into . . . that thing.’

‘That thing, as you call it,’ the princess says, ‘is the magical part of me. I love being the dragon and the dragon loves me.’

‘But if not a wife, you will die an old maid,’ he presses on.

‘I am half dragon, who told you I will ever die at all?’

The prince frowns in annoyance, he is obviously vexed and he speaks words that anyone over the course of history will tell you he will regret. ‘I think you need to learn that if you aren’t a wife and a mother, you are a witch and have no place in this world.’ 

The princess stares at him for a moment and then she snaps her fingers. Guards appear and take the prince by his arms, escort him out, and yet the princess lingers. She looks him in the eye before he is thrown out, the moon dragon’s gleam still in hers, and she speaks words so powerful the wind etches them inside the atmosphere for women to remember through history. ‘I exist. Outside of being a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, I exist. I exist as a human first, as a being that experiences joy and suffering, beauty and learning, life and tragedy. I exist because the universe chose to put me here for a purpose higher than my relation to men. I exist because a wise old woman gave me a gift and now magic runs through my veins. So the problem is not my existence as half dragon, half girl. The problem is how you perceive it as so small, you do not believe I can exist at all apart from through my bonds with men.’ 

And after the prince is thrown out, the moon dragon and the princess continue to share the day and night and live happily ever after.  

Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul is a collection of reimagined fairy tales consisting of mostly fiercely independent and strong-willed people. The bravery of the individuals stems from within rather than being dependent on men rescuing them. The tales are beautifully illustrated with line drawings. The beauty of the retelling comes through in the multiple layers that exist — as they should in any good poem! Whether it is for a mature reader or a tiddler, there is much pleasure to be derived from these crisply narrated tales. My eight-year-old daughter grabbed the book as soon as it arrived and took it away with her to the ongoing Readathon in school. She returned triumphantly saying how much she had enjoyed the poems and was able to retell them simply in her own way, missing much of the layered nuances that an adult would immediately get, but that is immaterial. The poems worked!

Fairy tales such as these have existed for generations with the kernel of the story being more or less as is. Somehow the flavour of each story is retained in Fierce Fairy Tales as are the characters but the stories have the unique stamp Nikita Gill’s storytelling — fiesty, sparkling, sharp, tongue-in-cheek, bold and true. The poems in this volume offer a way of seeing. The book blurb advertises the collection as “Feminist Fairytales for Young and Old”. So true! Given that these poems can be read in solitude or read aloud, either way they will be transformative as there are many ideas embedded in them.

Share Fierce Fairytales widely!

18 November 2018 

To order on Amazon India

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“The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi” by Vicki Mackenzie

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 RangaIt 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

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