Andrew Whitehead’s The Lives of Freda unravels the pioneering life of an English woman who crossed borders and defied norms only because she believed in the possibility of a free India. Excerpts:

When early in 1947 Freda Bedi applied in Lahore for a British passport, she described herself as a journalist. She had spent years teaching English at a girls' college, and was to resume that line of work in Kashmir, but in the mid-1940s, writing and reporting was her main occupation. The family circumstances changed for the better. Bedi's writing and publishing, ranging from textbooks to ghost writing, started delivering an income and that, Freda said, 'enabled me to take a rest from the rather hard routine of lecturing in the college and travelling backwards and forwards so many miles a day. So the years '42 to '46 were years when I was more at home and writing.' She relished the chance to have a calmer, more settled domestic life. Indeed she commented of the political activity in Lahore which now became a less prominent part of her life: 'I didn't particularly enjoy doing all this. I would have preferred, frankly, to sit at home and have a more peaceful family life. But it was the way life was, and there was no choice.' Whether this was a downplaying of the political expressed later in life when the spiritual aspect was foremost, or reflected a disdain for the rough-and-tumble of a political existence which was born more of duty than conviction, it's difficult to say – probably a bit of both. She also faced another political difficulty – as the Communist Party, and so her husband, fell out of step with the rest of the nationalist movement, husband and wife were also increasingly at odds about how best to achieve an independent India committed to social justice.

As a writer, Freda achieved a prominence to match her political reputation –and it was the work she most relished. In her student days, when her friends were talking excitedly of their personal ambitions, Freda's goal was to write. She published two books, largely collections of her writing for newspapers and magazines. As a columnist, she addressed women's issues with a directness which was startling. Throughout 1943, she had a weekly column in the Tribune entitled 'From a Woman's Window' which tackled issues – such as childbirth and breast-feeding – which rarely surfaced in the mainstream media at that time. But her focus on gender, and the unfair and unequal burden on India's women, was evident much earlier. Throughout her adult life, she sought to extend the bounds for women in public life. It would be difficult to describe Freda as a feminist. In her marriage, she willingly embraced a subservience to her husband and his personal and political ambitions. When she argued for women's interests, it was not on the basis of a principled demand for equality but of a measure more equity and respect. As a Tibetan Buddhist, she eventually found a comfortable niche with a distinctly patriarchal spiritual tradition which – as with most major religions – limited and confined women's role. Yet her championing of women, and her campaigning for the redress of women's grievances, was a consistent aspect of her life, and first became evident as an activist and writer in pre-independence Lahore.

In the spring of 1936, eighteen months after arriving in India and just a few weeks before Tilak's death, Freda was prominent in a public debate on the desirability of birth control clinics. The event was organised by the medical college students' union, and addressed a pressing issue in an era of large families and high infant and maternal mortality. 'Mrs Freda Bedi said that birth control did not mean no babies, it meant better babies; it did not mean no motherhood, but sensible motherhood. Birth control clinics should really be called "sensible motherhood clinics". Motherhood should be a glorious fulfilment of all that is best in woman and a source of vitality and joy and woman should not be condemned through relentless and machine-like production of children. The way to ensure this was to have efficient birth control clinics established in the Punjab where the service should be absolutely free.' There was lively opposition to her argument, with speakers expressing concern about birth control being sinful, leading to sterility and frustrating India's need for a large army, but the chair of the meeting declared that the general sentiment was in support of the clinics.

A couple of months later, Freda wrote for the Tribune's magazine section as part of a debate about the segregation of the sexes. 'All healthy minded people must agree,' she declared, 'that it is best if girls and boys can mix freely socially, while keeping a good attitude towards one another. … To my mind, co-education from childhood upwards is the only solution.' But swayed by her experience as a college teacher, she was also concerned that women students were ignoring skills such as cooking and sewing.

'The trouble with the present system is that a young man is usually faced with the alternative of a young modern educated wife, who has no idea of running a home intelligently or of bringing up children well, or on the other hand of a pretty girl, very uneducated, who can cook, sew and manage and bring up children but will live a life very apart from him, and be quite unable either to act as a hostess to his friends or to educate his children in the way he would like. I believe that in modern India, a wife, if she is to be useful must be educated, but I am shocked at the way girls in college here neglect learning household affairs. After all, the majority of girls are going to be married and it is only kindness to their husbands to be and their children that they should know something of the more practical things of life.'

In comments that must have upset some of her students, Freda went on to say that the 'trouble is that, because higher education is something of a rarity here still, girls become swelled-headed and think that they are sure to marry rich husbands and that it is below their dignity to work in the house.' This combination of progressive and traditional outlooks was a hallmark of Freda's take on life, and evident in it is how she saw her own role in the household, as her husband's companion and collaborator, but also as the homemaker.

(Photos extracted and text excerpted with permission from The Lives of Freda; written by Andrew Whitehead; published by Penguin. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'From a Woman's Window'.)

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