Wednesday, May 22, 2019 | ePaper
First Oxford woman who married a 'native' Indian
"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."