I don't know whether to call Stories I Must Tell by Kabir Bedi an autobiography, because the impulse of the book is so defensive. It certainly has autobiographical elements, but its larger project seems to be to counter the casual playboy heartbreaker edifice that is built around Kabir Bedi. This is understandable because for so long Bedi's story was told through and by the women in his life. His first wife Protima Bedi wrote a candid tell-all autobiography in 2000 — which Kabir describes as "a mix of enormous honesty, countless half-truths and omissions, and many self serving inventions" — and Parveen Babi, his lover for whom he left Protima Bedi, had her studied biography come out last year.
Kabir married three other times but since these were not affairs built or broken with media fanfare, he doesn't delve into much details on either front. Protima and Parveen, however, who lived their life among the media's magnesium glare, are given chapter long meditations. Both women are also dead, and thus unable to counter any of Bedi's counter-assertions. In the end it devolves into a He-Said-She-Said tennis match, but without too much of that accompanying rancour, for Bedi braids his counter-assertions with the deep affection he felt for these women.
The first assertion Bedi muddies is that of his open marriage. Kabir Bedi and Protima Bedi's open marriage was seen as a reaction to the Beat generation of LSD, Ginsberg and Free Love. Protima in her autobiography Timepass notes of her marriage with Kabir, "It was clear I couldn't stop affairs happening, so I took the attitude of 'I don't care because I understand'… When the starlets asked me how come I don't mind my husband flirting and having affairs, I would laugh and say, 'Well, he'd be stupid to refuse something that came so easily and cheaply,' hoping that would put the women off."
Kabir himself gave interviews at that time noting what he and Protima shared was love and not possessiveness, "People are forever mixing up love with possession. Possession is a negative feeling. Love is a positive feeling. Most of the misery people go through is because they mix up these two emotions."
But underneath this veneer of free love was bubbling jealousy and burning longing. Kabir makes it very clear that it was only when he realized that Protima was having an affair with a French man, outside of their till-then monogamous marriage, that he suggested that they pursue an open marriage. At least this way, there is no hiding, and no guilt. But even this frays over time. As Kabir notes, "Our open marriage might have seemed like a good idea at first. In the end, it only caused me greater anxiety."
It was when Protima was away in Odisha for three months, learning Odissi from its fountainhead Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, that Kabir filled that vacuum with his love for Parveen Babi. The timeline however is disputed. Though Parveen Babi's biography, which used Protima Bedi's autobiography as a source, notes that Parveen and Kabir had been seeing each other since before, Kabir notes strongly that the affair began only when Protima left overnight for Odisha. When Protima got back from Odisha, she realized that the facade of the open marriage was cracked, and that Kabir and Parveen were truly in love. Their marriage was thus over.
There is something like a whiplash reading about a character who demands fidelity, and yet succumbs to infidelity time and again.
As Karishma Upadhyay notes in Parveen Babi's biography, "The end was devastating for Protima. While Kabir moved on and got involved in another relationship, she was left with two young children and a broken heart."
There is something very odd about the language of this moment in Kabir's book. When he describes Babi he notes that despite her bohemian image, wearing jeans and smoking in public, "morally, she was a conservative Gujrati girl… she believed in sexual fidelity. It's what I was looking for when I fell in love with her." The language is odd because of how Kabir sets himself up. When he was courting Protima, he was also "informally engaged" to his girlfriend in Delhi while pursuing a no-strings-attached arrangement with a married woman in Mumbai. When he writes about why his second marriage fell apart he notes among other reasons, "And I was unfaithful. But that's a story for another time."
There is something like a whiplash reading about a character who demands fidelity, and yet succumbs to infidelity time and again. This isn't a moral judgment on Kabir's character, but a confusion about expectations of fidelity.
When Babi and Bedi broke up, much of her mental breakdown in India was unfairly blamed on Kabir Bedi. He wasn't in India to counter those allegations, shooting abroad, and so this book is a corrective to that narrative as well. That he dumped her is not true. That she left abruptly is his truth.
Certain allegations noted in Parveen Babi's biography — that she was expecting a child which Kabir Bedi had forced her to get aborted — is not even countered here, perhaps because Kabir considers the claim not even worth countering. Danny Denzongpa in whom Babi confided this, too, didn't believe her, knowing she is prone to hallucinations. A disbelief that is rooted perhaps in a medical diagnosis. But also, perhaps, something else. In the book when Protima Bedi tells Kabir Bedi that she is pregnant, his first instinct is disbelief, that she might be making this up so he is forced to marry her, "I knew she could be devious as hell." From a relationship that is mired in mind-games, it is hard to testify to clear conclusions. In the cases of both women Bedi notes in retrospect that with the wisdom of today he would have walked away from them earlier.
The book, otherwise, descends into the predictable star-autobiography genre — a retelling of "big" events, and "big" people one has met in life. At the very outset there is a sense that Bedi wants to tell his life story around and not about him — his interview with the Beatles when he was working with All India Radio, his friendship with Rajiv Gandhi, and later his fame in Italy with Sandokan, the famous people he breaks bread with, and the criminally long stretch that outlines the history of his parents' involvement in the national struggle for independence of India and Kashmir. His life is seen as a collection of events — but only those events that deserve attention. How does one empathize with a collection of events that is only designed to enamour?
There is an entire chapter devoted to his spiritual quest — an unedited mess of the various spiritual shopkeepers he was in market with from Osho to J Krishnamurthy. These could have been moving or even illuminating if Bedi was more rigorous in his articulation and introspection. The word "spiritual" has been used by so many people, so many times, that it comes with an accompanied eye-roll. Bedi often "ponders the mysteries of the universe" a phrase with as much ambiguity as pretensions. It doesn't help that he gives a page long explanation of the Big Bang Theory. It doesn't help that he offers a literature review of "objective reality". He treats spirituality as one of his stories, distinct and separate from the rest of his life, the rest of his stories. It bloats the book, and gives a sense of artificial heft. There is no doubt that Bedi who pursued a career across three continents has lived a life. But a life that is told as episodic follow ups to gossip column allegations and commercial spirituality barely makes for an autobiography.
The beating heart of the book however is in Bedi's subtle resentment towards Bollywood, a feeling felt by most stars dimmed by its shunned spotlight. At the book launch with Salman Khan Bedi noted, "I always feel that Bollywood never gave me the roles I merited." It is a reflection he gives full body to in the book, where it had come to a point where he even looks at commercials for insurance companies as a "welcome bonus". There is a sense of resurrection, and a hope that this book might be that — bringing him, his life, his craft back into conversation.
One of the most moving stories he tells is about his son's battle with schizophrenia. It's a harrowing day-by-day take of living with someone with an affliction that knows no cause nor solution. A frustration where the body begins to feel like an "anesthetic shell". Grief hurts and Bedi was wounded by loss. Here, we are given an introspective Bedi, who questions himself and his methods, who is pushed against the limits of medicine, the limits of our understanding of the brain, who is pushed against the limits of parenthood even. It's a breakdown of roles, of authority, of possibility, even of money, and it is in these cracks that Bedi makes himself most felt — a man who truly tries to mould the best of the world for him and his loved ones, but then circumstance intervenes.