Tuesday, March 19, 2019 | ePaper

First Oxford woman who married a 'native' Indian

  • Print
Freda Bedi lived an unusual life. Born in a small town in England, she moved to India for love and ended up joining the independence movement. Her biographer, Andrew Whitehead, writes about her remarkable story.
"There are things deeper than labels and colour and prejudice, and love is one of them." These were the words of Freda Bedi, an English woman who overcame prejudice to marry an Indian Sikh and went on to challenge Indian notions about the role of a woman and a wife.
Freda and her boyfriend, Baba Pyare Lal Bedi (his friends called him BPL), met at Oxford where both were students.
This was the early 1930s and romances across the racial divide were rare - almost as rare as a girl from Freda's background securing a spot at a top university. She was born, quite literally, above the shop in the city of Derby in England's East Midlands, where her father ran a jewellery and watch repair business.
Freda could barely remember her father. He enlisted during the First World War and served in the Machine Gun Corps, where casualties were so high it was known as the "suicide club". He died in northern France when his daughter was just seven years old. "This death shadowed my whole childhood," she recalled - it shaped her political loyalties and prompted her lifelong spiritual quest.
Her years at Oxford were "the opening of the gates of the world", as Freda once put it. She was part of "the Depression generation" - those who were students at a time of global crisis, mass unemployment and the rise of fascism. She made firm friends at her college with young women who were rebellious by nature, and went with them to meetings of the Labour Club and the communist October Club.
Driven by curiosity and by sympathy with those struggling against the Empire, she also went along to the weekly meetings of the Oxford Majlis, where radicals among the university's small number of Indian students asserted their country's case for nationhood. BPL Bedi, a handsome and cheerful Punjabi, was a regular there. A friendship developed into intellectual collaboration and, within months, Freda and BPL were a couple.
In the early 1930s, women's colleges at Oxford were obsessed with sex or rather with preventing it. If a male student came to have tea in a female student's room, a chaperone had to be present, the door left wide open and the bed had to be taken into the corridor. Freda's college did its best to derail her relationship - she was disciplined for visiting BPL without a chaperone in what she was convinced was a case of racial discrimination.
But she was fortunate in her student friends. Barbara Castle, who later became a commanding British woman politician of her era, was thrilled when Freda confided that she intended to marry her boyfriend. "Well, thank goodness", Barbara exclaimed. "Now at least you won't become a suburban housewife!" Freda's mother didn't see things that way though. Her family members were sternly disapproving, until BPL made a visit to Derby and managed to charm them.
Freda commented that the engagement caused "a minor sensation" in Oxford. That was an understatement. She believed she was the first Oxford woman undergraduate to marry an Indian fellow student. Some didn't hide their disapproval. The registrar who conducted the marriage ceremony pointedly refused to shake hands with the couple.
From the moment she married, Freda regarded herself as Indian and often wore Indian-style clothes. A year later, husband and wife and their four-month old baby, Ranga, set off by boat from Trieste, Italy, on the two-week journey to the western Indian city of Bombay (now Mumbai). "The nightmare was to get milk for myself to drink because I was feeding the baby", Freda recalled. "And I remember the millions of cockroaches that used to come out at night in the ship's kitchens - I used to go in and attempt to get milk."

(BBC Online)

More News For this Category

Putting last nail in the banking sector's coffin

WHEN the country's banking sector is facing tremendous problem, the central bank, custodian of all banks and financial institutions, is going to offer a generous scheme with easing the large

Rohingya criminals: A new challenge for Bangladesh

ROHINGYA refugee crisis is getting critical day by day. Now unlawful activities of some Rohingya criminal groups have become headache of law enforcement agencies. A Cox's Bazar court on Sunday

Huge potential for tourism in Bangladesh

Md. Atikur Rahman :The tourism sector of Bangladesh has been progressing beyond multiple adversities. In the last few years, the internal tourism sector has expanded a lot as the country

A problematic situation for Pakistan

Dr Niaz Murtaza :PAKISTAN now lags behind all SAARC states except Afghanistan on the Human Development Index (HDI). SAARC is the poorest region globally after Africa. So we are the

Readers’ Forum

Ensure security for the TigersIn the past days, I saw that some Test playing countries, including India, England and Australia, refused to visit Bangladesh despite repeated requests showing security reasons.

Experiencing degradation of moral and social values

INCIDENTS of women violation have been rising with the increase of women empowerment along with laudable attainment of gender parity in the country. With the latest violation of a mother

Land officials` wealth reports should be made public

THE Land Minister after taking charge in January openly declared a crusade against the corruption, and directed the officials and employees to submit their wealth reports by February 28. As

Christchurch shooting is the example of religious terrorism

Rayhan Ahmed Topader :What has happened in Christchurch is an extraordinary act of unprecedented violence, a religious terrorism. It has no place in New Zealand. Many of those affected are

The battle of ballots in India

India has entered full election mode: voting is due to begin on 11 April, with the final ballot cast more than five weeks later on 19 May. The election schedule

Readers’ Forum

Save the poor workers from accidents I feel so disturbed when see workers are still doing their jobs in the ship-breaking yards in Chattogram without proper safety arrangements. I have