Freda Bedi looking 'From a Woman's Window' on Kashmir
Freda Bedi looking 'From a Woman's Window' on Kashmir
Below is the text as submitted of an article accepted for publication in the scholarly journal South Asian Review, to be published in 2022. It is posted here in accordance with the guidelines of the publisher, Taylor & Francis. The published article is available online here: https://doi.org/10.1080/02759527.2021.2002240
The photograph depicts Freda Bedi when she was in Kashmir, where she lived from late 1947 until about 1952. In her first few months there, she was a member of a left-wing women's militia. This photograph was probably taken in 1948. She is pictured with her two sons - she is holding Kabir (born January 1946) and sitting on the pet dog is Ranga (born May 1934). Copyright remains with the Bedi family. I am indebted to the Bedi family for their permission to include Freda Bedi's journalism about Kashmir - again, copyright remains with the Bedi family.
Freda Bedi looking 'From a Woman's Window' on Kashmir
Freda Bedi stands out in the history of twentieth century Kashmir - an English woman by birth who supported the nationalist movement in Kashmir and, prompted by that political commitment, lived there for several years and took up arms to defend the 'New Kashmir' project. She was a friend and prominent supporter of the radical Kashmiri nationalist, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. They became political allies while he was leading the opposition to princely rule and that alliance deepened when he in effect came to power in what became the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir from the late autumn of 1947. For five years from the close of 1947, Freda and her family lived in Srinagar where she was active in the Women's Self Defence Corps, in helping refugees, in devising text books suitable for the new political dispensation and in teaching in Kashmir's newly established women's college.
Her introduction to Kashmir came when she was an activist and journalist living in pre-Partition Lahore, then the capital of the undivided province of Punjab. Freda Bedi was part of a network of Punjabi leftists and Kashmiri nationalists who made common cause to establish representative government in the princely state. She was also a pioneering writer on women's issues for a mainstream daily newspaper in Lahore that was sympathetic to India's independence movement. In the course of 1943, four of her weekly columns for the Tribune focussed on Kashmir, offering a window on politics there at a crucial time in the development of the nationalist movement as well as on the position of women and on living conditions. Three of these four articles were revised and published later that year in Behind the Mud Walls, a book which gathered together some of her journalism and other writings including the diary she kept when a political prisoner in Lahore two years earlier. (Bedi, 1943)
The larger part of this article is given over to the republication - for the first time since 1943 - of these writings about Kashmir and its women. The purpose of this introduction is to explain who Freda Bedi was, how she came to write about Kashmir and why these articles continue to merit our attention.
There was nothing in Freda Houlston's upbringing in a lower middle class household in the English Midlands that pointed towards political radicalism or an affinity with India. (Whitehead, 2019) Her life changed utterly in 1929 when she became a student at the University of Oxford. For 'a provincial girl', she later remarked, 'it was really the opening of the gates of the world'. She and her friends went along to meetings of the Labour Club and the communist October Club as well as the Majlis, at which Indian students gathered to deplore the injustices of British Imperialism. Freda's romance with a Punjabi fellow student, Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, survived the disapproval of both her family and her college. Her mother and step-father were sufficiently reconciled to attend the wedding at Oxford Registry Office in June 1933 - although the registrar indicated his disapproval by refusing to shake the hands of the couple he had just married. By the time Freda Bedi first set foot on Indian soil in the autumn of 1934, she carried a baby boy, Ranga, in her arms. B.P.L. and Freda Bedi had by then edited three volumes about India published by Victor Gollancz, London's leading left-wing publishing house. (Bedi and Bedi, 1933-4)
India became Freda Bedi's enduring home and in time she took Indian nationality. B.P.L. Bedi's commitment to nationalism and communism had been forged during his years at Oxford, and for the next twenty years he was principally an activist. Together B.P.L. and Freda Bedi published in Lahore an impressive left-leaning quarterly review, Contemporary India, with Subhas Chandra Bose among the contributors. After that collapsed, they collaborated on a much more populist and raucous weekly paper, Monday Morning. B.P.L. Bedi became a key figure in Punjab's communist-aligned peasants' movement; Freda Bedi became a provincial organiser of the Indian Civil Liberties Union. The burden of family breadwinner fell largely on Freda, who taught English at a girls' college in Lahore and worked as a freelance journalist, notably for the Tribune. The Bedis lived unconventionally in thatched huts without power or running water in fields adjoining Model Town in Lahore - a statement of defiance and also a way of making ends meet without reliance on family wealth.
When the Second World War broke out and India was conscripted into the British war effort, B.P.L. Bedi was detained because of his attempts to sabotage army recruitment. He spent fifteen months at a prison camp at Deoli in the Rajasthan desert. Freda Bedi responded to her husband's arrest by making a political statement of her own and seeking Gandhi's permission to be a satyagraha. She courted arrest by declaring her intention to express public opposition to the emergency war powers. As a result, she spent three months as a political prisoner at Lahore Female Jail, where Aruna Asaf Ali was among her fellow detainees. In the summer of 1941, after her release, Freda began a weekly column for the Tribune entitled 'From My Village Window' - vivid and compassionate pieces about the lives of the rural poor, and of village women in particular. At the start of 1943, by which time her husband had also been released, Freda embarked on a new weekly column with the title 'From a Woman's Window'. This was a pathbreaking initiative to write on women's issues for a general readership. Her style was personal, gentle and persuasive. The topics ranged from dowry to women's dress, from child bearing to breast feeding, as well as emphasising the need for greater opportunities for women in public life.
The emergence of Sheikh Abdullah as a mass leader in Kashmir caught the attention of both Congress and Communists, and Abdullah had the shrewdness to work alongside both these nationwide parties. Abdullah and his colleagues often visited Lahore and on occasion stayed with the Bedis, who in turn became regular visitors to Kashmir, particularly in the summer, seeking both relaxation and a new political arena. In August 1942, when Congress launched the Quit India movement, B.P.L. Bedi happened to be in Kashmir and (by his own account) advised Sheikh Abdullah and other leaders of the National Conference to stay aloof from the Congress initiative, not least because they could achieve more if they were out-and-about rather than behind bars. The incarceration of much of the Congress leadership gave prominent Punjabi communists greater scope to influence the progressive movement in Kashmir. Freda Bedi's journalism on Kashmir written for a Punjab-wide readership - of more than twenty articles under the title 'From a Woman's Window', four focussed on Kashmir - are a reflection of the left's growing focus on the Kashmir Valley.
As a weekly columnist, Freda Bedi's purpose was neither reportage nor advocacy, but drawing on anecdote or incident to offer a personal - and gendered - reflection on issues which resonated with her readers. The first of her pieces about Kashmir (and the only one not included in Behind the Mud Walls) arose from her involvement in the annual session of the National Conference at Mirpur in April 1943 at which Sheikh Abdullah presided. According to a news report in the Tribune, both she and her husband had prominent roles in the political discussions: Comrade Bedi presided at the Mirpur Students' Conference at which the students demanded, among other things the release of Mahatma Gandiji [sic] and the opening of a College in Mirpur. Mrs Freda Bedi presided over a women's meeting at which a bridge over the Jhelum was strongly demanded, this being the major grievance of the women and children in the Mirpur area.
It's striking that the National Conference's annual gathering included what seems to have been a separate meeting of women activists. Freda drew on the women's grievances about the ferry across the Jhelum, and her own experience of that journey, as the basis for her next weekly column, which drew a parable that pre-figures the approach of the women's movement several decades later: 'Alone a woman is helpless and knows it. Together with her sisters bound by common trouble and suffering she can show greater strength than she or the world dreams of ...'.
The following month, Freda Bedi returned to the topic of Kashmir in successive weekly columns describing a trip largely on foot or by pony along the old and little used Mughal Road to Srinagar. These were revised and considerably extended for inclusion in Behind the Mud Walls, and it is that more comprehensive article which is republished here. The style was that of a travelogue and bore a curious echo of European missionaries' and travellers' accounts of Kashmir which appeared in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (for example Younghusband 1909; O'Connor 1920) a few of which were written by women (Pirie 1909). Bedi had the saving grace of a luminous writing style that avoided the condescension with which earlier accounts marginalised Kashmir's rural poor. The route taken was used during the era of Mughal rule, approaching the Kashmir Valley from the south-west through the Pir Panjal pass at an attitude of over 11,000 feet. It could not be travelled in full today as it traversed what is now the Line of Control, the ceasefire line which in effect partitions the former princely state into areas under Indian and Pakistani control.
Bedi mentioned only in passing what to a modern-day reader is the most remarkable aspect of this journey - that Sheikh Abdullah was one of her travelling companions. There's frustratingly little about Abdullah's political purpose in conducting this arduous journey, or indeed of how he was received apart from a description of the almost regal welcome afforded to the National Conference leader in Thanna:
The Kashmiri women had found out that their leader had come. They huddled together in a shy group on the roof of one of the huts, as though undecided what to do. Then they started a song of welcome: "To-day our Rajah has honoured the house with his presence" they sang. ... they were singing for the only ray of light they knew. For one who fought for the poor, and would see them ruling in the land of their poverty. The explicitly political sentiment in this last sentence did not appear in her original article, and her column - either by choice or editor's instruction - generally avoided partisan comment.
Magically, almost eighty years after that trek one of those who made the journey is still around to share his memories. 'I vividly recall that trip', says Ranga Bedi, who was then eight years old. He says that Sheikh Abdullah and a political colleague were staying with the Bedis at their huts in Lahore and planned to return to Srinagar along the Mughal Road so that Sheikh Abdullah could meet and seek support from the Bakarwal community, who were in part nomadic and herded their goats in the foothills of the Pir Panjal mountains. Begum Mehraj, a schools inspector, was also travelling - as far as Ranga Bedi recalls - so she could inspect government schools in the area.
This made up mother's mind to undertake the trip. I was not considered for the trip due to school but made mother's life so miserable with my grumps and hang dog expression that she decided to take me along just two days before leaving. A pair of longs and a three-quarter length jacket was fashioned out of blanket material and stitched on priority basis as my gear. Our journey in the mountainous part was on bridle paths where you could either walk or be on horseback. Roads did not exist in the area. While mother, Sheikh Sahib and Mehraj walked, I was on a pony most of the time. There was another pony and porters carrying our belongings. Through this journey that lasted several days, we spent the nights in the home of a Bakarwal family who vacated the room for us. We all slept on the floor. In most places water was scarce and was available only in buckets. The food we ate was home cooked by a lady of the tribal family. While Mehraj spent the day inspecting schools, Sheikh Sahib would address gatherings in neighbouring villages, including the one where we stayed. Mother spent her time making notes for an article on the trip.
Those notes formed the basis for her columns for the Tribune and subsequent longer account of the journey.
Freda also wrote a nursery rhyme for her son entitled 'Pir Panchal' celebrating their journey - one of a collection published many decades later when Ranga was himself a grandfather:
Ranga, when / He was very small / Crossed the range / Of the Pir Panchal. A meadow of snow / With never a pine / Ranga crossed / Before he was nine. (Bedi, 2010, 85-6)
No wonder he remembers the journey so well.
Freda Bedi's account of the trek reflected her excitement to follow in the footsteps of the most powerful woman of the Mughal era, Nur Jahan (1577-1645), the wife of the emperor Jahangir, who wielded huge political influence. She described Nur Jahan as one of the 'very few women who have captured the imagination of history, who have pierced the veils of wifehood and motherhood, and live on in the memory of the outer world'. When she commented, as if addressing Nur Jahan, that the veils and curtains of the emperor's court 'could not prevent your spirit stealing out and capturing the soil and the stones and the people among whom you moved', an inescapable political and social point was being made about women's potential to lead and to inspire.
The fourth and final of Freda Bedi's 'From a Woman's Window' articles on Kashmir appeared a couple of months later, in July 1943. It was a personal account of her presence at the National Conference's Martyrs' Day ceremony in Srinagar. This anniversary is still marked in the Kashmir Valley. The martyrs were those killed on 13th July 1931 when the maharaja's security forces opened fire on a large crowd outside Kashmir central jail prompted by the trial of a young man, Abdul Qadeer, whose case brought together both religious and political grievances. Most accounts say that more than twenty Kashmiri men were killed. Their bodies were carried for burial to a graveyard that has become known as the Martyrs' Graveyard. The massacre prompted a spate of protests and unrest - some of which bore a communal angle - which led to piecemeal political reform in the princely state and confirmed the rise to prominence as a mass leader of Sheikh Abdullah. (Zutshi, 2003, 210-227; Kumar, 2018, 25-29). It came to be seen as a foundational moment of the Kashmiri nationalist movement. Sheikh Abdullah likened the tragedy to the manner in which the storming of the Bastille triggered the French revolution - by 'risking their lives', Kashmiris had 'dismantled the centuries old bastion of oppression'. (Abdullah, 2013, 78-81).
Freda Bedi's attendance at the Martyrs' Day ceremony - 'one of the most moving meetings I have ever been to', she said - was on the twelfth anniversary of the massacre. It was still live in the collective memory and reflected aspirations to religious esteem, social justice and representative government which remained unfulfilled. The aspect which attracted her attention was the gathering of about 150 women just outside the burial ground to participate in their own way in the event. 'They were the silent background of that animated meeting', Bedi wrote in her Tribune column. 'And it occurred to me, looking at them, that they had been the silent background of all the history of Kashmir and the struggle of its people.' She reflected on the current of women's activism in the popular movement against autocracy at that time and the manner in which this could shape Kashmir's future. 'It was women such as these who ran out into the streets and became the heroines of those early fiery days. It was such women who rattled stones and frightened the horses of the soldiery. ... When and if the time ever came, these same women would be on the streets again, never faltering, throwing that power-house of energy, which they hoard, into another great movement of the people.' There was a distinct tradition of women's activism in Kashmiri nationalism which became more evident in the years following Freda Bedi's article (Misri 2002; Khan 2014; Malik 2014). Her remarks were both a wish and a forecast - and in some measure a call to action too.
Within a matter of weeks, Freda Bedi's women's column for the Tribune ended - it's not clear why - and with it her journalism about Kashmir. But her political engagement with Kashmir intensified. In 1944, she played a role in the devising of the New Kashmir draft constitution and manifesto, of which her husband was the principal architect. (New Kashmir, ; Whitehead, 2020) This remarkably ambitious and radical document adopted by Sheikh Abdullah's National Conference as their contribution to the maharaja's invitation to consult on political reform took a boldly progressive line on women's rights and included a women's charter; the English language edition featured on its cover, remarkably for the time, a politically assertive Kashmiri woman holding the National Conference flag of a white plough on a red background. The following year, both Freda and B.P.L. Bedi attended the annual congress of the National Conference at Sopore, and featured in a group photograph alongside three future prime ministers of India (Jawaharal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and the infant Rajiv Gandhi) and two future prime ministers of Indian Kashmir (Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad).
In 1946, Freda Bedi happened to be in the Kashmir Valley when Sheikh Abdullah launched the Quit Kashmir movement against princely rule. Abdullah and many of his colleagues were arrested, and other prominent opponents of princely rule either made their way to the safety of Lahore or went underground in Kashmir. Women nationalists filled the void and kept the protest movement alive. Freda Bedi refused to comply with orders from the maharaja's authorities to leave Kashmir and famously wore a burqa to travel incognito around Srinagar and make contact with underground leaders. (Bourke-White, 1949, 200-1)
Towards the close of 1947, when it became clear that the Bedis could no longer live safely in Lahore, the family moved to Srinagar. Freda promptly enrolled in one of the most remarkable expressions of women's political assertiveness in Kashmir, a left-wing women's militia. (Whitehead, Forthcoming) The Women's Self-Defence Corps was organised in part by communists and rallied to the support of Sheikh Abdullah and of the Indian troops defending the Kashmir Valley from invasion by Pakistan. Their mustering on the streets of Srinagar was a vivid demonstration of the collapse of the old princely order and of the ascendancy of Sheikh Abdullah and the New Kashmir he sought to build. Freda Bedi went on to be a part of one of the most important gendered aspects of New Kashmir in action - she taught at the Government College for Women which Sheikh Abdullah established in Srinagar in a building which had previously housed widows of the Dogra dynasty. The Bedi family lived for five years in Srinagar and Freda's daughter, Gulhima, was born there. After moving to Delhi, Freda Bedi embarked on the chapter of her life for which she is most remembered - embracing Buddhism and in time taking initiation as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. (Whitehead, 2019).
These articles which Freda Bedi wrote based on her early engagement with Kashmir have an air of romance and a touch of wistfulness about them and are products of weekly column rather than more analytical writing. They offer an unfamiliar perspective on Kashmir, with a particular focus on gender, and are written with an energy and charm which make them a pleasure to read as well as a window on Kashmir as the challenge to princely autocracy reached a climax.
There seemed to be a chakkar in our feet last week. It took us from village Bhakna right to the borders of the Kashmir State - where the National Conference was holdings its session.
It is a human instinct both to settle and to move about. We travel, and it is good to be still, and at home again. We remain in our accustomed work and surroundings, and there is some elemental joy to be on the way to a new and a strange place. It was a nomad woman who said "People must move about, for don't you see, the moon and the stars, water, animals, birds and fishes, all move, and only the dead and the earth lie still". I think sometimes I have a bit of the gypsy hidden inside me.
The journey was a unique one. By train to Jhelum then by tonga to the banks of the river from where the Ferry Gutalian was to take us over into Kashmir Territory. The sight of the Jhelum awoke a corresponding stream of feeling inside me: whether it be the tides of the sea or the phases of the moon or the current of the river there is something deeply stirring and awful in the restless movement and progress of the forces of Nature.
We sat in the shabby ferry boat and moved slowly across . The afternoon sun burned down on us and the arid countryside. On the sandy shore of the river a marriage party gaily dressed was sitting with a red and white palanquin like some gay flower-bed. They too waited their turn. In front the grey mobile stretch of the water and tufted, scorched islands breaking it. We got across the river being alternately pulled and pushed and rowed and towed in about two hours. For us it was easy enough since we never left the boat. But the other passengers had to get down on the islands and walk across the burning sand, the round hot stones and the spiked grasses.
At the Conference we found the delegates had all arrived tired, some walking from [the] river, others coming in a lorry, still others on a camel, the red flag in front, and with much laughter. There were resolutions about Ferry Gutalian which serves a territory comprising Mirpur, Poonch and Rajauri and nine lakhs of people. The hundreds of people who came [from] all over Kashmir to the Conference will remember it not only in their heads but in their bones which ached for a good day after their journey.
The women put in their word for a bridge too. It is no joke for old women and mothers with children to face such a primitive journey every time they want to come to the Punjab or the Frontier. They were indignant about it "and we even have to ride on donkeys" they said with a smile half mischievous and half ashamed. They formed their own committee. So many have tried and failed. Now it is for the women of Mirpur to show that they will not be refused. Alone a woman is helpless and knows it. Together with her sisters bound by common trouble and suffering she can show greater strength than she or the world dreams of, for none can refuse the weak when they band together or force the gentle [sic] into submission. "Those who are weak are strongest." I have a faith that when the strong arches of a new bridge span the Jhelum it will be the effort of the women that will put it there.
Every year the python of heat takes the plains of India in its relentless coils, and the earth pants for release. And at its first deadly embrace those strangers who came to the fertile land of Hindostan in their hundreds and thousands, greedy for her riches, began to dream nostalgically of the mists of the mountains, and the rugged countries from which they came. Mahmud of Ghazni went back to Afghanistan and Tamerlane, the cruel, to Turkestan. But there were others who came to stay, and they turned their reddened eyes and sweating bodies to the Himalayan kingdoms at the foot of the ageless snows.
Most treasured of all the jewels they discovered, a green valley studded with lakes in the lap of the mountain giants, was the Vale of Kashmir. And of the kings who went there to revive their heat-tired bodies (for many went of whom we know little, and there are some "Mogul Pathans of the time of Kutub Shah" who left their descendants on the piney sides of the Pir Panjal), of all the emperors who loved it, the most devoted were the Moguls. They worshipped beauty as few have dared; they strove to create it as few have striven. In an access of wonder they wrote.
"If there can be heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here". They paved the floor of the valley with their gardens. They put the inspiration of great art into the wizard fingers of the craftsmen who carved the wood, and worked the silver, and polished the stones, and wove the carpets of that fabulous land. They spread chenar trees near the lakes, and embroidered the chenar leaf in myriad designs on her silks and her goats' wool fabric. They created for her, and from her. In short, they took her to their heart. Akbar the wise, he who is called the Great; Jehangir, his son, with his beloved and matchless Nur Jehan; Shah Jehan, the dreamer and the builder, and Mumtaz Mahal whose beauty he immortalised in that pearl among domes, the Taj.
We too have turned our eyes to Kashmir, away from the heat of the plains. We have taken the dusty lorry sometimes that toils up the prosaic military road through Rawalpindi and Murree. Sometimes we have gone by the Bannihal tunnel, if only for the first breath-taking view of the rice-fields on the valley floor - glittering like the pieces of mirror in a length of Sindhi embroidery. But, somewhere within us, there was always the big question mark ... how did the Moguls find their way into the valley? Where is that "old route" that led from Imperial Delhi into the mountains?
This year we found it. It began in an ordinary enough way. The first stage was Gujrat-Bhimber, a stretch of twenty-eight flat miles. Gujrat is deep in the heat and dust of the Punjab, a drab market town. We were obliged to bargain for a tonga, as petrol rationing had laid its axe on motor transport, and we bumped along a treeless countryside in intolerable heat, only getting down to bury our shoes in the burning sand of deserted river-beds. After a few miles, the hard road gave way to an uneven mud track, and typical Punjab mud villages, with their flat roofs, wide courtyards and cool kitchens full of brass pots and pans, sprang up by the roadside.
It was harvest time. The women were at work side by side with the men, beating the newly-harvested grain with sticks. The piles of what smelt hot and fragrant in the sun, and they winnowed away the chaff until the air was full of it. An ancient rite: their methods have not changed for centuries. Neither, for that matter, has the expression on their faces. It was full of the satisfaction of work fulfilled: they were contented that the crop was good and that the wild beast of hunger for another year at least would not howl at their door. Men and women were wearing the same dress - the tahmet, a colourful length of cloth round wound their waists to form a straight skirt, a loose tunic at the top. The only difference was that the women wore a veil while the men wound the cloth round their heads to form a turban. The children, tumbling about near the corn heaps, were for the most part naked, although the older ones wore a ragged shirt.
We arrived at Bhimber hot and tired in the early evening. There our small party gathered together, and we made plans for the journey. "Have you seen Nur Jehan's bathing room"? somebody enquired, and we went out to find a small domed room in ruins, brown and mossed with age, one side a medley of fallen bricks. Was it our imagination, or did something of the grace of the fabled Nur Jehan, loveliest and most romantic of the Mogul queens, still cling to its mouldering curves? "This is where the Mogul tradition begins" said Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, the people's leader of Kashmir, who was to guide our footsteps to the door of the past. "All along this route we shall find traces of that great yearly trek they made, along with the court and its trappings, from the heat and torments of Imperial Delhi, to the lakes and mountains of our beloved Kashmir."
From Bhimber to Sadabad was a distance of twelve miles, and that in reality started the trek. We got hold of local ponies: except for the elegant Bulbul, who had almond eyes, they were sorry enough beasts, but they took us willingly up the foothills of barren rock sprinkled with pink-blossomed canna bushes, and gashed with dry river-beds. We had started out too late, and the whitish-grey sandstone path was blinding the sun. An occasional "flame of the forest" burned up on our left. Little Ranga galloped ahead in high delight on his white pony and ate yellow hill raspberries from a villager's basket. Round Sadabad harvest drums were beating, and the harvesters were working and making merry in the fields.
At Sadabad was the first Mogul serai. It was a sad ruin, and we were relegated to a Rest House, hardly less depressing. Jehangir's "room of audience," with it twelve arches, was full of weeds, and looked out on to a terraced garden full of dock leaves and ragged banana trees. Behind it was the lovely square courtyard, bordered with arched rooms, where the queens lived; beyond, the outer road where the servants, soldiers, and courtiers stayed. We sat on the flat roof and dreamed of what had been. The lights and the carpets had gone, the scents and the gold and the jewels. Gone the beauties of the Mogul court and its rich feasting. In the outer road, a few poor families had taken up their lodging, and a handful of dirty though not unattractive children were running about among the scratching fowls. The tiny mosque was deserted, and a bania sat near the gate.
We changed horses again, and set out in the morning for Nowshera, eleven miles away. As is usual, even on the best of treks, it turned out to be an unlucky day on which everything went wrong. The saddle slipped on one of the horses, and its rider was thrown. The path to Nowshera was alternately sunny and shady, much the same as the day before, and we arrived at the town in evening only to find that the Dak Bungalow had been reserved for the Maharaja who was on tour. We had no alternative but to toil up the hill to the bare Rest House at the other end of the bazar. The serai here was used as a Police Station and a Tehsil office, and it sprawled over the top of the hill like a fort. We sighed again. It would have been much better to stay in the serai than in the dull rooms we occupied. To depress us still more, the horse-men disappeared (pleading harvest duties), and no more ponies could be found until the afternoon of the next day, when we slipped out of the spicy bazar along the stony path above the river.
Nowshera to Chingas is a pleasant enough journey, alternately hugging the side of the wide river, now green, now grey, or dominating it from a great height. The sand gleamed white in the sun by the side of the water. Sandy paths took us through pine forests and we sloped down by the rushing water into Chingas - a ride of eleven miles - when dusk was falling.
It was at Chingas that Jehangir died, on one of his journeys to the mountains, leaving behind the sorrowing Nur Jehan. His serai and his last resting place was on the top of a sharp hill, and we climbed the steep path up to it through a wild jungle of trees and bushes. The square arched gateway loomed above us, silhouetted against the darkening evening sky, with an intoxicating sadness and grandeur. To the right was the doorway into Nur Jehan's courtyard, where she wept when Jehangir lay dead in her arms. To the left the second courtyard where she buried his heart and his intestines, before carrying away his loved body to be buried in state in the Dilkhusha gardens in Lahore.
We turned once again to our Rest House that, by some miracle of Official Understanding, was immediately behind the serai, on the top of a precipitous bank that flanks the river. Our minds were full of thoughts of the Emperor, who when dying longed for Kashmir, who loved riding and hunting and the Himalayan jungles. "Chingas is almost as lovely as the Valley" somebody said pensively, "see, the snow are fresh on the mountains, and the river is singing an unending chant in its deep peaceful voice". Yes, Chingas was a healing place: it was not sad for all its story. It was as though Nur Jehan loved it and had forgiven it, although it marked the beginning of her long years of widowhood - the dividing line between her life of gaiety and luxury, and the years of seclusion that she led in her white widow's robes.
In the morning before leaving for Rajauri, fourteen miles away, we scattered a few rare rose petals on the simple slab of stone that marked the grave, and looked into the tiny whitewashed mosque that protected it. "Lucky fellow, Jehangir" said Sheikh Sahib, "in lifetime he was surrounded by lovely women, and even after he has been dead two hundred years they come to his grave with rose petals." "Lucky too because he had Nur Jehan" said Mehraj. "And lucky to have found rest in such a perfect place" said I.
Before entering Rajauri, we had to ford a swift river, and were with difficulty dragged across by some workers who had come to meet their leader, the "lion of Kashmir" with many slogans and much enthusiasm. In the town we found that the original serai of the Moguls had been kept in repair, and was being used as a Rest House. It hung like a great bird's nest on the high bank above the stormy river. We took possession of Nur Jehan's room, with the arched niche where her divan used to be placed. Outside the windows and arches were the massive iron hooks on which the heavy curtains of the queen were hung. Belong the ground level was the underground room through which water used to flow: a refuge from the heat of the midday sun. Now it is a store-room for broken furniture. The fish-backed water channel is dry, and the lotus-shaped stone fountains in the garden are green with disuse. We sat on the verandah as the light fell, and its quietness was filled with a hundred voices of the past, the echo of stringed instruments, and the scent of flowers. We looked up with a start: ahead was the suspension bridge that divided the old Rajauri of a hundred dreams from the modern Rajauri across the river.
We walked later through the bazar over the bridge. It smelled of freshly-baked Kashmir rolls, pepper and spices, and was hung with the jingling silver ornaments and girdles of the hill women. At night, following the meeting that was held there, we saw it in another mood. The shops were shut. Only the fitful light of the lantern shone on the rough stones and peered into the shuttered doorways. An old pariah dog yelped. Beyond the slender bridge the rice-fields, full of the sweet rice for which the town is famous, lay quietly by the river side. "What are the occupations of the men of Rajauri?" we had asked the schoolgirls. "Some are peasants and grow rice and maize" they said, "and some are money-lenders." And, in an instant, the rice-fields looked pathetic, and above them hung the claw of the money-lender, and even their beauty was gone. We had turned up a pretty stone and found a scorpion lying beneath it.
Food was plentiful at Rajauri: fresh vegetables and fruit and meat were on sale in the shops. Ranga's eyes bulged with excitement. There were eggs in plenty and fish from the stream. After the bare diet of the village bazars, the inevitable onions and potatoes and lentils, varied with an occasional chicken, it was like a "land of plenty." We halted there for a few days, because after it the real climbing was to begin.
We left with a threat of rain in the air, some of us on ponies and the others on mules. The road was pretty but uneventful, and the springs of drinking water haunted by frogs. It was eleven miles to Thanna at the foot of the mountains where we were all welcomed by a hospitable Sardar, with garlands of roses and jessamine, intensely scented, and long glasses of sherbet.
In the evening we visited the serai. It was a ruin as the others had been, but a colony of peasants had made it their lodging. Before the chaste lines of the arches they had built crude mud huts, plastered them, inscribed them with their scrolls and designs. The remains of Mogul splendour were still there. In the high vaulted rooms where the Emperor held his court, fragments of glass still clung to the lacy network of stone, and gleamed like diamonds on the roof which was blackened by the smoke of countless cooking fires. A rancid goat-skin was streched [sic] to dry below a carved niche. Goats with their kids and a spare hill cow were hidden in a dark corner where Nur Jehan bathed her dazzling body and refreshed herself after the journey.
The Kashmiri women had found out that their leader had come. They huddled together in a shy group on the roof of one of the huts, as though undecided what to do. Then they started a song of welcome: "To-day our Rajah has honoured the house with his presence" they sang. I looked again at their faces lined with poverty, the dirty and ragged clothes on their backs. Had they been as dirty and as poor when the great ones of history walked the earth? Probably so, for the poor have always been poor. The serai had once been a palace, full of light. But the lights were extinguished at last, and they had crept back into it from their drab homes in the fields, as the jungle creeps back on the town when its inhabitants flee away. The lively, happy faces of the women were sharp before the dark arches: beggars at the door of history, they were singing for the only ray of light they knew. For one who fought for the poor, and would see them ruling in the land of their poverty.
From Thanna the ascent of the mountain barrier began. The first day we climbed a bare four miles, among scenery of wild grandeur, dense forest dropping into steep valleys where streams rushed over the boulders with a mountain abandon. The landscape had a rhythm like "Kubla Khan" and Coleridge's lines leapt through my brain:
"A savage place, as holy and enchanted As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon lover."
Nur Jehan haunted us there too. At Chandanmarh, there was a fifty-foot high waterfall between dark rocks, and a niche was visible in the rock face where her mirror used to be. There she would wash her hair and bathe after the toil of the way. "Nuri Abshar" they call it even now, and the sun reflects on the spray below it and flings an insubstantial rainbow across the foaming water, as though to decorate it in her honour.
The next day we crossed the Pir Panjal, the mountain barrier that divides Kashmir from the rest of India. It was a gruelling journey, many miles of steep climbing, for the major part of the time on foot, as the lean horses had enough to do to look after themselves. The first snows lay in drifts as the foot of the range, covered with pine needles, and soon we had entered the snows themselves and crawled across a path nine inches wide that had been cut across the slope of the snow. Above and below was the glittering hill of snow; ahead, the shack of stones, reputed residence in times gone by of the "Pir," the holy man of the mountains.
The goatherds, nomads who take their flocks across the snows, have a belief that the Pir still guides them, and they will not cross the pass after the winter snows until one among them has had a dream, in which the Pir appears on a blue horse and tells them that the road is safe.
On the other side of the hut the climb ceased, but the five-mile wide snowfield was another trial of strength. It was cut by streams of melting snow, and in places the sodden earth, bedraggled with wet grass and the first flowers, was beginning to emerge from its winter prison. We had to walk across it all, as the feet of the ponies sank deep, and our feet were cold and sodden with mud and icy water. Behind us the snow peaks, white and unbroken, leaned against the gentian blue of the sky. Ranga managed it all on a diet of almonds and raisins and we promised him a silver medal inscribed "Ranga crossed the Pir Panjal before he was nine."
We were all tired when we caught sight of the serai at Aliabad, on the edge of the snow-line. It had seemed near enough but it receded like a mirage, and we had to climb up and down three steep ravines and scramble across three frozen streams before we reached it. Beneath the ice we could hear the roar of the rushing water, and in places a big hole in the snow showed the stream boiling ten feet below. Aliabad had been another of the Mogul resting places. Alas - it was a more pitiful ruin than any before it, and we fell into a broken-down room where a shopkeeper was storing rice and fell asleep among the rats and the horses after drinking the tea and maize bread that the nomads had cooked for us with true mountain hospitality.
The snows were gone, but between Aliabad and Hirpur stretched another fourteen miles of broken and uncertain road. At one place Akbar is reported to have sacrificed two nomad boys, because the path was dangerous, burying the head of one of them below the path, and the head of the other one above it. We could feel the Moguls with us still, near the flocks where men in gay embroidered caps gave us black pots full of milk, along the sandy paths through the pines where the river purled below us. Right to that rare corner of the hills where for the first time we saw before us the "vale of Kashmir," cradled like a jewel in the morning mists, the snowy cone of Nanga Parbat behind it, spotlighted by the sun. Green rice-fields lined the valley, and the white mountain chain embraced it. It lay "an emerald set in pearls," a pendant on the breast of Mother Earth.
The range was well behind us now. By Dubjan, where the nomads have their herds counted and are taxed by the State for their grazing in the lush grass of the upper hills, we were already in the real Kashmir. They brought us hot salted tea in a samovar at the "tax tent," and sweet nutty paddy rice instead of the maize bread of the Pir Panjal. We bathed in the sulphur springs, and the spring earth, released from the snows, was a fair meadow of wild flowers: cerise lady-smocks, yellow and white marsh marigolds, blue birds' eyes, multiple-headed celandines. We galloped down the pine glades to the Forest Hut at Hirpur, with its wooden houses and pungent pine-cone fires. The next day we rode through the apple orchards and iris-studded graveyards of Shopian, tasted its traditional Kashmiri hospitality, and by midday were in the creaking lorry that carried us thirty miles into the heart of Srinagar.
The journey was over. The untidy city of Srinagar hung over the borders of the Dal, the grand houseboats of the rich and the drab houseboats of the poor were brooding on its grey waters. The shadowy Mogul cavalcade that had followed us moved on, the palanquin of Nur Jehan, the many palanquins of the women, the elephants, the workers and the craftsmen and the soldiers, those on whose feet the Great Ones of history have walked, and in whose arms they have been cradled. The unknown and silent ones who have worked and loved and died in the shadow of kings and leaders, they who were their power and their motive, their judges and their historians.
There are very few women who have captured the imagination of history, who have pierced the veils of wifehood and motherhood, and live on in the memory of the outer world. Nur Jehan, with your dresses, your brocades, and your jewels, your poetry and your learning, your beauty that set you apart even among the flower gardens of the Mogul Court, you who had compassion and whose potent hand lay on the shoulders of the Emperor as he ruled and dispensed justice on the Peacock Throne, - you do not only belong to Jehangir, dear though you were to him. Though he hid you behind veils and curtains and protected your feet from the rough roads, though he spread Persian carpets before you and dressed you in silks and silver, still he could not prevent your spirit stealing out and capturing the soil and the stones and the people among whom you moved. Still he cannot prevent it, for your presence lingers like the scent of roses wherever you rode and had your being.
One of the most moving meetings I have ever been to was the Martyrs' Day of the Kashmir National Conference ... the death anniversary of twenty-nine men who were the victims of police firing during various phases of the national movement in the early 'thirties. The graves of the martyrs were laid in two rows on a raised mound, and they were strewn with the multi-coloured glory of Kashmiri flowers, scarlet and purple and yellow and white The men came in their turbans and embroidered caps, many dirty and ragged, each with his dumb offering of a handful of blossoms. And the mounds of flowers grew and grew.
At one end, the names of the dead were displayed on a board, and beneath it stood their President, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, and sang the "Song of the Martyrs":
"The death of the Martyrs is the life of the nation. It is because of you, O fighters for righteousness that this world gets its strength."
A deep and terrible sigh passed through the watching men. A sigh for sufferings undergone. A sigh for sufferings yet to come.
Behind was the mosque, constructed of wood and bricks, with grass and weeds and flowers growing out of its venerable mudded roof. In the wide ground surrounding it, where the meeting was later held, spread the great green arms of the chenar trees, blessing the people with their cool and satisfying shade. In an arched pavilion outside the walls the women were sitting ... about one hundred and fifty of them.
To outward seeming they were like any other crowd of Kashmiri women. Most were in the burqaa, with its crown-like head-piece, making it particularly ungainly and ugly. The others were the working women, in their loose-fitting tunics, the white thick veil on the back of their heads, heavy earrings, carved circles of silver, hanging in bunches on their distended ears. Most of them had children, laughing and playing and crying at their feet.
They were the silent background of that animated meeting. And it occurred to me looking at them that they had been the silent background of all the history of Kashmir and the struggles of its people. Those martyrs whose bodies lay beneath the flowers had left wives and mothers and sisters and daughters. Perhaps some of them were there, tortured once again with quiet tears, once again elated by the grandeur of a martyr's death and a martyr's memory. Something had drawn them there, out of their household walls, to the adventure of a public gathering.
It was women such as these who ran out into the streets and became the heroines of those early fiery days. It was such women who rattled stone and frightened the horses of the soldiery. Some village women, like that plump aging woman over there, took a club on her shoulder and strode at the head of one of the village "armies" of the people that marched into Srinagar. I looked at them again, closely, and could find nothing dynamic or fiery in their slack clothes or their timid faces.
But I knew inside me that this was woman's shell. When and if the time ever came, these same women would be on the streets again, never faltering, throwing that power-house of energy which they hoard as a bee hoards its honey into another great movement of the people. Women put their proverbial patience to many uses. They know how to wait.
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 I am indebted to the family of Freda Bedi for permission to republish her writings here - copyright continues to rest with the family. I am grateful to Sunandita Mehrotra, Harish Khare, Roopinder Singh and Sakshi Kundra for their help in accessing Freda Bedi's contributions to the Tribune.