As schoolchildren we heard a lot about Rajinder Singh Bedi from our father. They were school friends, attended Lahore’s literary gatherings and joined the All-India Radio together. When WW-II started my father was posted with Indian soldiers in Europe. Rajinder Singh Bedi at the end of the war was posted to Jammu.
When my father died he wrote a short note to my mother in chaste Urdu: “Chupp ho gaya mera yaar”. Unlike modern day letters of condolences, it seems our elders believed in very short versions. My father’s BBC cricket commentary partner John Arlott sent a short note to my mother: “They don’t make ‘em like him any more”. Both were brief, betraying the happy times spent together. Over the years as my research on Lahore and the Punjab goes on, it seems I have grown fond of the Bedi clan, who once lived in sufficient numbers in the city. It is probably because they are considered the ‘royalty’ clan among Punjabis.
The mother of Baba Guru Nanak was a Bedi, and because the seer was born in the house of his maternal family, as is Punjabi tradition, he was named ‘Nanak’, based on the term ‘nanakay’ – of the maternal family. The Bedi clan henceforth has been known as the ‘first family’ of the Sikh religion. This piece is about two exceptional Bedi men who graced Lahore in the pre-Partition era.
The first Bedi, naturally, was Rajinder Singh Bedi, the outstanding Urdu writer, playwright, dialogue writer, screenwriter and in his last years a film director. Born in September 1915 at Dalley Ki village in Tehsil Daska in Sialkot District, as a baby his mother moved to Lahore as his father, Hera Singh Bedi, was a senior official in the General Post Office of Lahore and they lived in the small ‘postal colony’ behind the main GPO on The Mall. His father, Hera Singh Bedi, naturally, was a Khatri as all Bedi are, while his mother was a Brahman named Sewa Dei.
Rajinder was fond of Urdu literature and soon started writing short stories under the pen name ‘Mohsin Lahori’. In the literary circles of Lahore, which in those days met mostly inside the old walled city at the various ‘baithaks’, he started making a name for himself and his first short story ‘Maharani ka Tohfa’ appeared under his real name Rajinder Singh Bedi. The Urdu monthly magazine of Lahore ‘Adabi Dunya’ declared his story as the best story of the year. From this point onwards he was a sought-after writer.
After completing his schooling in 1933 he joined the Lahore Post Office as a junior clerk. For the next eight years he spent his spare time reading books, attending the literary sessions of various colleges and organisations. His contributions invariably made their mark and by 1941 he joined the Urdu Section of All-India Radio in Lahore. After 1947 this station naturally became Radio Pakistan. He wrote dramas, which in those days of broadcasting was the most sought-after media. Among his earlier dramas were ‘Khawaja Sarra’ and ‘Nakl Makani’. He took time out for two years in 1943 to join a Lahore film studio called Maheshwari Films, whose studio was at the Montgomery-Davis Road crossing. Here his ability to write dialogues was further honed.
When the war ended in 1945 he was posted to Jammu. Soon he rose to become the director of the Jammu and Kashmir Service. But the experience of the Partition of his homeland moved this sensitive writer to such a degree that he resigned and moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) to work as a dialogue writer for films. Among his numerous films were ‘Dev Das’ (1955) and ‘Madhumati’ (1958). He turned to film direction and among his many films were ‘Dastak’ (1970) and ‘Phagun’ (1973).
But his first major novella ‘Eik Chaddar Maeli Se’ was why he is best known. It was initially made into a film in Lahore before 1947, as well as in India in 1986. Being an Urdu language writer his works were published both in Pakistan and India.
But then his fame will rest on his beautiful novels and short stories, which like Sadaat Hasan Manto, centred on the events of Partition. It was an experience, as he was to himself write “the pain of which just cannot go away”. In a speech in Mumbai he was to say: “My heart and soul remain in Lahore. My body you will cremate in Mumbai”. That was where he died at the age of 70 on the 11th of November 1984.
So we move on to the other great Bedi of Lahore. It is not that famous Indian actor called Kabir Bedi, but his amazing father Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, who was born on the 9th of April 1909 at Dera Baba Nanak, a town founded by the Bedi
ancestors of the first Sikh Guru. Though Guru Nanak lived and died and his last rites performed at Kartarpur in Pakistan, his ancestors founded this town nearby and lived there. So it was that the 16th generation Bedi was born to be named Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, or BPL Bedi.
Like his ancestors BPL Bedi was a mystic of sorts making a name for himself for spreading what he called the Aquarian Philosophy. Ultimately he was to set up a research institute that researched ‘The Not-Known’. His interest in all the religions, the occult and mysticism remained his abiding interest. Given that he was the 16th descendant of the founder of Sikhism, this was not surprising.
Baba Pyare Lal Bedi grew up in Lahore and lived in a house just behind Dyal Singh College near Lakshmi Chowk. After schooling and college, he left for Oxford to study philosophy, politics and economics. Among his college mates was Freda Marie Houlston, an activist student he was to marry and bring back to Lahore. At Oxford both were exceptional students and moved to Heidelburg’s Ruprecht Karl University and finally to the University of Geneva. He was a passionate researcher and got a job at the University of Berlin. There the couple in 1933 had their first child named Ranga. The couple returned to Lahore in 1934 and set up house in Model Town.
Very soon the couple joined the revolutionary politics after the hanging of Bhagat Singh in Lahore. They were seen as a dangerous couple and BPL was arrested and sent to a remote detention camp in the Thar Desert. On release he was to head the North Indian delegation to the First Congress of the Communist Party of India.
By this time his wife Freda had started taking a greater interest in the Buddhist faith and headed to Nepal, where she became the first-ever female Buddhist priest. The couple’s house in Model Town became the place to be seen if you were interested in Communism, as well as spectacularly different, if you were interested in mysticism and ‘The Unknown’. The authorities were confused on how to label the Bedi couple.
When Partition came - with which BPL Bedi disagreed calling it an “unnatural act” which will ‘fatally divide the people along sectarian lines’ - he decided to dedicate his life to assisting Partition refugees in India. The stories of the hate generated convinced him that only by following a spiritual life, completely detached from all forms of beliefs, could humans live in peace with themselves.
BPL Bedi was probably the first Indian to rebel against the growing Hindutva pockets in the new country and in 1961 he declared that he was Baba Bedi the XVI (the sixteenth) and founded in New Delhi the Institute of Research on the Not-Known. He did not find much success and in 1972 he moved to Italy to preach ‘Aquarian Philosophy’ using vibrational therapies.
In his lifetime BPL Bedi was to write a number of books, the best known being ‘Karl Marx – Letters on India’, a well-known book on Sir Ganga Ram titled ‘Harvest from the Desert’, ‘Sheikh Abdullah: His life and ideals’, ‘Mystic India’, ‘The Holy Commandments of Nizamuddin Aulia’, and several books on Guru Nanak as well as on the occult and mysticism. He passed away in Italy in 1993.
So it was that the two famous Bedi intellectuals of Lahore lived their lives trying to understand the pain of Partition. It would be interesting if the 17th generation Nanak Bedi, namely the actor Kabir Bedi, proves to be the first Indian to be invited to walk from his ancestral village Dera Baba Nanak in India towards Kartarpur in Pakistan to lay the foundation of a peace the Bedi clan have always represented.
Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2018