BBC journalist and historian Andrew Whitehead shares his insights on the Oxford graduate who became one of the first Western women ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
Freda Houlston and BPL Bedi at the time of their engagement
By Naomi Canton
While still at Oxford, Freda became anti-imperialist and pro-Indian independence. Once on Indian soil, where she lived with her Indian husband in Lahore, Kashmir and Delhi, she became an Indian nationalist.
Her life will form the basis of a book by historian and freelance journalist Andrew Whitehead, who read History at Keble and was a BBC World Service news editor.
The story will cover how Freda became friends with Labour cabinet minister Barbara Castle, her peer at St Hugh’s, and how her Gandhian and left-wing views were inspired by her time at Oxford, particularly her membership of the communist October Club, the Labour Club and Majlis, a debating society to campaign for Indian independence.
‘From her marriage onwards, she wore only Indian clothes. She was quite clear in her own head that she was Indian. Of course, she was English,’ Whitehead says, sipping a cappuccino at a hotel in Paddington. Freda and BPL were on the same PPE course and romance blossomed.
‘BPL was from a privileged family in Lahore. He was meant to join the elite Indian civil service when he left Oxford but he got attracted to communism and Indian nationalism instead.
‘Freda had a strong sense of the ethical and she thought the way Britain suppressed the nationalist movement in India, the way it policed the Empire, the way it restrained people’s natural desire for self-determination was wrong,’ Whitehead says.
It was the 1930s, the time of the British Round Table Conferences to discuss constitutional reforms in India; the time of the Hunger Marches and the rise of fascism.
‘The strange thing is that although quite a lot of elite Indian students in the UK married English women, they did not usually marry fellow Oxford students — the rather crude stereotype is they married the “landlord’s daughter”,’ says Whitehead.
‘There is a whole file in the India Office Records of rather distraught working-class English woman who say they married Indian students who went back to India and they have not heard from them at all.’
There were articles in the press warning young English women not to marry Indian students because they were probably already married. The Indian student publications also had discussions about their parents’ dislike of mixed marriages, Whitehead says.
Reported by a Hertford College porter for going into BPL’s room unaccompanied, Freda was disciplined by being sent down early one term. It only strengthened their relationship and soon afterwards they got married at Oxford Register Office.
She graduated with a third and he with a fourth. They moved to Berlin, then Lahore, where she wrote articles and taught English.
In 1947 the family moved to Kashmir where they were active in the Kashmir nationalist movement. BPL Bedi worked for the then prime minister of Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, and they got to know Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
Then Freda took a United Nations post in Burma and encountered Buddhism.
From 1959 onwards Tibetan refugees flowed into India. Horrified by the conditions they faced, Freda set up a lama school for incarnate Tibetan lamas and a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery.
In 1966 Freda took her ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, becoming one of the first European women to do so. She took the name Sister Palmo and her marriage in the conventional sense was over. ‘She didn’t tell her children she was going to become a nun. She simply appeared in Delhi wearing the maroon robes with her head shaved,’ Whitehead says. BPL Bedi turned to the occult and became a Sufi mystic.
He made contact with her family as he was curious about her, especially since her son Kabir Bedi is an international film star who played Gobinda in Octopussy.
She spent the last 11 years of her life dividing her time between Dalhousie and Sikkim working with Tibetan lamas. She was instrumental in helping the 16th Karmapa Lama, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the west, including to the ‘Beat’ movement in California.
Whitehead found that Delhi publisher Speaking Tiger was considering a series of books on Indians that challenge the idea of what it is to be Indian. He proposed Freda Bedi.
In Oxford he has gained access to Freda’s tutorial reports, the ‘not terribly good’ poetry she wrote for The Imp (a student magazine), and the complete set of Contemporary India, the quarterly journal the couple edited in Lahore, stored at the Bodleian Library.
‘There is something about the way in which she challenged convention and broke through barriers — of race, religion, nationality and gender — which I find quite remarkable,’ Whitehead says. ‘At a time when we are so concerned about identity, the way in which she challenged conventional notions of identity is really interesting.’
If you have information about Freda Bedi, Andrew Whitehead would love to hear from you and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
All images courtesy of Andrew Whitehead except newspaper cutting courtesy of the Oxford Mail and Andrew Whitehead portrait by Ken Passley.