White Swans of Kashmir

Most westerners that figure in the history of Kashmir were either missionaries like C. E. Tyndale-Biscoe or employees of the Maharaja's like W R Lawrence. However a few like Freda Bedi were involved with Kashmir not as a career option, but because they chose to be.

Freda Bedi was an Englishwoman who met and married B. P. L. (Baba) Bedi at at Oxford University. During the struggle against the Maharaja, the Bedi's were closely associated with the National Conference, especially with Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah.

Their communist leanings are believed by some to be the influence for the admittedly leftist slant of the 1944 'Naya Kashmir' manifesto. Freda Bedi delivering messages to jailed National Conference leaders wearing a 'Burkha' is part of freedom struggle folklore.

My grandmother would sometimes talk about her – especially when Kabir Bedi was on TV. I don't remember the context now but I believe it had something to do with Begum Abdullah, with whom my grandmother had been closely associated. Kabir Bedi, the film actor, is Freda Bedi's younger son. The Bedi family used to own property in my neighbourhood (Shivpora) and I seem to remember that the elder son, Ranga Bedi was a friend of my eldest brother.

Edna Bellafontaine was more of a mystery. Unlike the other two, there is very little information on this Englishwoman, the self-confessed 'Mata Hari of Kashmir'. Till I came across the news item I thought she was a famous painter. I have a painting signed ' Edna Bellafontaine 1949' hanging in my living room, and have seen her works in the homes of certain old families in Kashmir.

Nilla Cram Cook is the most intriguing of the three. According to a 1933 Time Magazine article titled the 'Runaway Disciple',

'Of all his strange disciples the one who has caused Mahatma Gandhi the sharpest pangs of dismay is plump & pleasing Nilla Cram Cook, 23-year-old daughter of the late George Cram Cook, Iowa poet. …..

……Her difficulty in adjusting her good intentions to her Iowa temperament caused sorrowing St. Gandhi to embark on a hunger strike seven months ago'

Nilla Cram Cook

She apparently wrote and translated poetry, explored mysticism, was Mahatama Gandhi's most troublesome disciple, reinvented dance in Iran and worked as cultural ambassador for the United States.

Nilla Cram Cook's Kashmir connection is 'The Way of the Swan', her gem of a translation of the the works of Kashmiri mystics including the Lol's or love poems of Habba Khatoon / Zooni. This is the inscription on a copy of the book she presented to my father: