It's over 70 years since Britisher Freda Bedi wrote a collection of personalised Indian nursery rhymes for her eldest son, Ranga. This week, along with younger brother, actor Kabir Bedi, he will release Rhymes with Ranga, a book of children's poetry that carries a whiff of India's struggle for independence
"Mummy was more Indian than anyone of us. She gave up wearing dresses and moved to salwar kameez and later, sarees, ever since she stepped on Indian soil," says actor Kabir Bedi of his mother Freda Swan, who made India her home from the 1930s till she passed away in 1977. The second son of Baba Pyare Lal and Freda is as excited as older brother Ranga and younger sister Gulhima about the launch of Freda's book of poetry.
Ranga Bedi flips through an album of family portraits with wife Urmi at
their Bengaluru home. PIC/ Satish Badiger
"Mummy's rhymes will finally be read by India's children," says Ranga in a telephonic interview from his Bengaluru home. The chat takes on a nostalgic tone as talk veers towards their days in Model Town, outside Lahore, in pre-partition India.
Freda Bedi with husband Baba Pyare Lal
Kabir, Gulhima and Ranga
Freda Bedi with baby Ranga
Unlike now, it was a small township. Freda realised how Anglicised nursery rhymes like Humpty Dumpty had little connect with the kids. "It left me cold, I was unable to relate to names and places from a distant country.
That's when she started writing about the environment we lived in; from the time I was two till my teens.
Except for the rhymes on festivals, most of these 34 poems were generated from real-life experiences, whether kite flying, bullock cart rides, waiting for a parcel from England or acquiring our pups, Pug and Snug," says the 75 year-old.
One of his favourites is Bapu Ji, a poem based on an episode when "I asked mother about Gandhiji's shoe," says Ranga, his child-like enthusiasm negating the trademark Bedi baritone.
Finding an illustrator
Ranga, the family archivist, as Kabir calls him, ensured that their mother's works were preserved. "The poems were unpublished until now because we couldn't find an artist who could effectively illustrate the essence of Punjab, and later, Kashmir, where the family moved post-Partition," reasons Ranga.
Back then, such books weren't published in English. Word got around and Ranga's youngest daughter Sehar met with Chiki Sarkar (Random House India) who liked the idea. After three years and several trials, they chose Anna Bhushan as the artist.
Family and country
While the collection of nursery rhymes portrays Freda as a loving, caring mother, her second role, that of a fierce nationalist, is a little-known one. When the Britisher married Pyare Lal Bedi, they were both students at Oxford University. "Theirs was the first Indo-British wedding at the Oxford Registry Office, and was expectedly met with opposition. My father told her about his promise to return to India to join the freedom struggle. Mummy said, 'I love England but hate colonialism'." Together, they took the plunge," shares Kabir.
Freda was the first British woman to be jailed, in 1942. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi invited her to join the non-violence movement. The Bedi couple were imprisoned on several occasions, and that's when Ranga, the
eldest, would take charge.
When the family moved to Kashmir, their father was advisor to Sheikh Abdullah. Later, in Delhi, the Bedi household became a meeting ground for creative minds. "It was a simple, middle-class family. But we were culturally and philosophically rich," recollects Kabir.
"After my mother became a Buddhist nun, and my father, a mystic, Kabir and Gulli would visit me in Assam, where I worked on a tea estate. I was more than an elder brother," says Ranga.
A voice of the Tibet movement
In 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers arrived in India, Freda was asked by Jawaharlal Nehru to give direction to the Tibet movement. She founded the Young Lamas Home School in Dalhousie.
"Most Tibetan monks who moved abroad owe their roots to her selfless teaching. Recently, when I met the Dalai Lama at an IPL match in Dharamshala, he gave me the warmest hug after he learnt I was Freda's son," says Kabir.
He recollects the time when he decided to enter Bollywood. "I was fortunate. That I had Rs 700 in my wallet didn't seem to worry her!" Her ideology, quest for truth and an inquiring mind continue to influence Kabir.
Rhymes for Ranga by Freda Bedi, published by Random House India. Available at leading bookstores for Rs 399