Freda Bedi was an English woman related to me by marriage. Her son, my Uncle Ranga, now in his eighties, sent me a copy of her book, Behind the Mud Walls (Unity Press, 1941). As I read, I discovered more about the country of my birth, through the voice of a woman I once met, as a child. I began to develop a play, Beyond the Mud Walls, with Stellar Quines Theater, which was showcased at Rehearsal Rooms 27 in September 2016 at the Traverse Theater, Edinburgh. (Some phrases are taken verbatim from the book.) The following are extracts from my work in progress.
The oil-lantern was burning half-heartedly on the shelf.Someone was banging pots and pans in the kitchen.
I wanted to talk to Baba, to have his cheery voice near me.But I couldn’t express what I wanted to say in my limited Punjabi. I doubt I could have said it in English.
I felt so utterly alone, I could have wept.
But soon the loneliness was gone, and I felt part of something much greater than myself.
Two days later, I gave notice that I would shout the slogans in the village street.
Gandhiji ki jeh! (Long live Gandhiji)
Nehru ki jeh! (Long live Nehru)
Comrade Bedi ki jeh! (Long live Comrade Bedi)
Prisoner ko sud ho! (Release the detainees)
Freda Bedi devoted her life to India’s independence, and later to Tibetan Buddhism. (In 1967, two of her pupils founded the Samye Ling in the Scottish Borders, the first Tibetan Buddhist Centre in the Western world.) As an English woman, born in Derby into a middle-class family, she actively resisted such labels as “English” and “Indian.” Freda studied at Oxford, where she met her future husband, Baba Priyare Lal Bedi, a Sikh gentleman and supporter of Indian independence. Baba served prison sentences with Gandhi and the rest of the Congress Party. Freda soon followed suit, serving a sentence at Lahore Women’s Prison.
It was finished in fifteen minutes.
The man on the other side of the table
was quite young.
He looked as though he had been to Oxford.
His face was red.
I find this as unpleasant as you do.
Don’t worry, I don’t find it unpleasant at all.
Do you want the privileges granted to an English woman?
Treat me as an Indian woman and I shall be quite content.
Political. Six months’ rigorous imprisonment.
By this time, she had moved to India with her baby son, Ranga, had learned Punjabi from her husband’s family (living with them for the first year), and had been working as an English lecturer at Lahore College for Women. In her book, she describes the dramatic landscapes of her travels through the country, and her fondness for the Vale of Kashmir, where she did her best to maintain a sense of home, despite her husband’s numerous and lengthy spells in prison. This is what sets her narrative apart: she is against British imperialism, and becomes the “Other,” or does her best to do so. She will always be English, but this loyalty is based on a common understanding of things that run deeper.
When I left England my wedding dress was stolen,
sold in the chor bazaar – the thief’s market – for a few rupees.
When I left England did I lose something else?
That girl running wild like the waves of the sea,
Then polite as you please, taking afternoon tea.
The land of mists and walled gardens.
My wedding dress still shines in my memory
like the snows of Nanga Parbat
like lush leaves or blossom branches.
It’s difficult to imagine how different I was then.
But somehow, I’m still the same.
After England, before India.
Before India, after England.
Before I walked the ruins of the seven Delhis,
dreamed away an afternoon at the Pearl Mosque –
among dust and sand, and trellised windows,
and temples – the decayed grandeur of Rajputana…
Freda’s book contains far more than the story of one English woman. It crosses borders of race, class and culture, giving voice to strong Indian women she meets, and from the subcontinent’s pre-colonial history. The latter is something we rarely hear about in the West: just who was India, before the British? She was (and still is) a vast composite of cultures, languages, religions, landscapes, art, literature, wars and political leaders – even female ones. I could not believe that Nur Jahan, empress of the Moghul Empire, was not a household name. Her husband, an opium addict and alcoholic, was incapable of ruling; so he handed all power over to his wife. Her reign lasted sixteen years.
Hundreds of years have passed since then,
since my jeweled feet stood
on fine Persian carpets,
since my hands – covered in rings and bracelets,
and soft with the milk of young buffaloes –
signed documents that would send men
to their deaths.
Since Queen Elizabeth the First
rotted her teeth with a fondness for sugar.
Arabia gave you a taste for sugar and pearls,
silks and fine jewels
But it all comes to little – or nothing.
FREDA and NUR JEHAN
The pearls return to the sea and salt
The silks are eaten by worms in the ground
The other jewels…
They might last, if you pass them on
to your daughters or sons,
and in their gold-and-silver sheen
you’ll remember me.
In a time where nations and race play a part in shaping our identities, where identities shift or stick rigidly to enforce barriers that send people to their deaths or destroy their liberty through ignorance, Freda’s story offers hope.
Safe passage across those snowy plains of Kashmir
was granted to the goat herds
when they saw the Pir, the great holy man
of the mountains in a dream,
riding a blue horse.
I had no such dream.
But I could see something taking shape
in my small, distant future.
A great wave of people moving south
through the mountains.
Visions of red returned, but with an intensity
that burned and rebirthed me.
It would bring pain, this deep awareness,
but I knew it would also set me free.
Like streams of melting snow:
the sodden earth, bedraggled with wet grass and first flowers,
began to emerge from its winter prison.