There is no one way to describe Bedi’s eventful journey, finds Chintan Girish Modi as he looks into its very beginnings
Kabir Bedi | Illustration: Binay Sinha
The book jacket of actor Kabir Bedi’s memoir describes him as “a man who holds nothing back, in love or in storytelling”. I realise how true this is over a Zoom call to discuss Stories I Must Tell: The Emotional Life of an Actor, published earlier this year by Westland.
One of India’s first international stars, whose acting credentials extend to the United States, Canada and Italy, Kabir Bedi shows up with the warmest of smiles and his baritone voice. Seated in the study of his apartment in Juhu, Mumbai — I’m at my work table at home, roughly 10 km away — he comes across as a man who has found peace after all the ups and downs in his life. “This conversation is supposed to happen at a coffee shop but I’m sorry we have to do it online because of the pandemic,” I apologise, my mug of milky instant coffee by my side. I cannot see his, but I do see a poster of Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) on the wall behind him. Kabir Bedi assures me that it’s fine because “we all have to adapt to the new world”.
To lighten the mood, he quotes Gulzar: “Khud se zyaada main apne mobile ko sambhaal ke rakhta hoon kyunki ab saare rishte isi mein qaid hain (more than myself, I take care of my cellphone because this is what holds all my relationships now).” We share a moment of laughter.
Kabir Bedi, 75, wrote his memoir during the pandemic, maintaining a disciplined routine and enjoying the view of palm trees from his window. He credits his wife, producer Parveen Dusanj, for “protecting” him from distractions. Theirs is a young marriage; the couple tied the knot just five years ago.
He uses the memoir “to set the record straight” about his relationships with his former wives — model and Odissi exponent Protima Gauri Bedi; British fashion designer Susan Humphreys; and British television and radio presenter Nikki Bedi — and his girlfriend, late actor Parveen Babi with whom he had a turbulent romance.
I am more interested in hearing about his parents, Freda and Baba Bedi, especially because he writes, “My greatest regret is that I did not partake in my parents’ highest spiritual teachings.”
He remembers them as idealists who believed in sacrificing personal gain for the welfare of others and for the freedom of the country. I first learnt about them when I attended the launch of Andrew Whitehead’s book, The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi (2019). I was touched by the story of a Punjabi man and an English woman meeting at Oxford, getting married, and coming to India to join the freedom struggle.
“My father was a communist, my mother a Gandhian,” he says. “She grew up as a Christian and became a Buddhist nun (the first Western woman to take full ordination in Tibetan Buddhism); he was a descendant of Guru Nanak who became a new-age philosopher.” He cherishes their values that helped him “through dark times” and steadied him “in euphoric times”. In Kabir Bedi’s roller coaster life, there were plenty of both. Triumphs and tragedies; milestones — like getting an exclusive interview with The Beatles as a 20-year-old freelance reporter with All India Radio during their visit to Delhi — and mistakes. The beginning itself was tumultuous.
Born in Lahore a year-and-a-half before Partition, he’s known first-hand of countless lives lost to or disrupted by communal violence. That’s a reason why after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, he started the Sikh-Hindu Allied Relief Exchange (S.H.A.R.E) Peace initiative to appeal for harmony and help financially. “I regard those riots as the most barbaric act in the history of independent India,” he says. “The fact that 3,000 Sikhs were murdered at the instigation of goons from a political party is absolutely unforgivable.”
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s death was also a personal loss. She was “Aunty Indu” to him since his mother worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru. Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi were his “peers and playmates” in Delhi. He says his idealistic parents often had very little financial stability in their lives, so “Aunty Indu” paid part of his sister Gulhima’s college fees. “I may not have agreed with her on everything but she was very kind to us.” Over the years, the families lost touch. And during the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Kabir Bedi took to Twitter asking India to vote for Narendra Modi.
We return to his mother. Deeply moved by her spiritual journey after reading Whitehead’s book, I had got myself copies of two other books — The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun (2017) and The Spiritual Odyssey of Freda Bedi: England, India, Burma, Sikkim, and Beyond (2018). It was quite generous of Kabir Bedi and his siblings — Ranga and Gulhima — to share private archives with the authors.
He tells me, “It’s a crime if family members don’t share important materials and writings of their parents. They are not achieving anything when they are gathering dust.” So he shared recordings, photographs and memories after checking the authors’ credentials. “I tried to write about my mother but then felt that publishers might think every child believes their mother is great. The story is more credible when it comes from others. They have added to my knowledge of my own mother,” he says.
We talk about Freda Bedi’s exposure to Buddhism on a trip to Myanmar (then called Burma), where he’d tagged along, and her work with Tibetan refugees in India after the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers came here in 1959. He speaks fondly of the Young Lamas Home School that she set up in Dalhousie — where he taught English — and of renowned Buddhist teachers Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo who were mentored in their early years by his mother.
He recalls feeling “betrayed” when she appeared at home “with a shaved head and in maroon robes” and told him that she was going to live at the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim. He was 20. The 16th Karmapa of the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism would be her guru. “I was part of her journey into Buddhism; I was shocked she didn’t tell me earlier. I felt I had lost her,” he says. He “melted” only after she wrote him a letter.
This letter appears in his memoir. Freda writes: “The link between the baby and the mother does not cease. It continues. Nothing ceases. In a way, this time I am the baby. And I need all your love and protection… To take an ordination in a direct line from the Buddha is an inexpressibly sacred thing.” Reading this made me think of how Rahula must have felt thousands of years ago when his father, Siddhartha, left home to pursue his spiritual quest that finally led him to become Gautam Buddha. It so happens that Kabir Bedi’s own son was called Siddharth (he died at the young age of 25).
Kabir Bedi’s has been a life with many shades. It’s a life that’s difficult to capture in one book, let alone one coffee meeting over Zoom. Speaking of coffee, so engrossed have we been in the conversation that we have totally forgotten about our coffees, which are now lying forlorn and cold. Hopefully, there will be another occasion for coffee and conversation — about the past and the future. For, Kabir Bedi is now keen to take on more acting and writing assignments, and discover “the real nature of truth”.