Mother, grandmother, community reformer, Hindu priest. Born on April 4, 1925, in Sahnewal, India; died on Nov. 15, 2013, in Toronto, of hospital-acquired infections, aged 88.
Sarla Bedi’s life spanned almost nine decades and three continents, and was shaped not only by her own circumstances but also by historic events such as the independence movements in India and Kenya. Born into the Kapila family in Sahnewal, India, she was a young child when her father decided to move his family to Kenya, searching for a better life during the Great Depression that swept the globe.
Growing up amid the Indian diaspora in Kenya, then a British colony, Sarla was exposed at an early age to struggles for social justice. The colony was governed under a policy of racial segregation, with separate schools, hospitals and residential areas for Indians, Africans and white “Europeans.” Sarla wanted to study law in England, but as the only daughter present in a family with five sons, an ailing mother and a father of limited means, she had to give up that dream at age 18.
Instead, she became a teacher in Nairobi and took charge of the household, cooking the meals before work and sewing her brothers’ clothes. She also found time to paint and to take part in public debates about Indian independence, which drew large audiences (and helped shape her superb oratorical skills).
In 1946, she married Gobind Bedi, who was also active in social causes. Together they raised four children (sons Nilam, Deepak and Shalin, and daughter Sheetal) in a devoted, 62-year partnership that lasted until Gobind’s death in 2008.
In 1972, they immigrated to Toronto, spurred by political unrest in East Africa that was marked by the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. Sarla and Gobind were among the founders in Toronto of Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement that began in 1875. The group helped hundreds of immigrants get settled, with weekly meetings in schools and other venues. By 1996, the group had built their own Vedic Cultural Centre in Markham, now the hub for variety of cultural and community activities such as seniors’ programs and children’s summer camps.
In 1976, Sarla was registered as the first female Hindu priest in Ontario. Her ceaseless volunteer work made her a well-respected counsellor on spiritual, social and personal matters, becoming a source of strength for all those around her. She conducted hundreds of baptisms, weddings and funerals in the community, and was especially proud of her role in mixed-faith nuptials, welcoming others to the Hindu faith and culture.
Away from the public stage, our mother loved her simple comforts, whether it be a good massage or a tasty dessert. She examined nutrition labels and ate with great discipline, but also had a sweet tooth. She would not serve herself a whole rasgulla (a syrupy Indian dessert), putting only a quarter piece on her plate. Then would come a second quarter, then another, and perhaps the final quarter. She would offer up a sheepish smile – and then resume talking about healthy foods.
She spent her final 40 years in Canada, and made it clear that this was where she wanted to be. In the 1990s, my brother Deepak did all the preparatory work to move our parents to join him in Texas, where the warmer climate might ease Sarla’s severe arthritis. But she refused to complete the final formalities at the U.S. embassy, saying, “Toronto is home now – I can always visit America.”
Sarla’s intellect, optimism and genuine interest in the well-being of others won her the confidence and friendship of people of all ages. She leaves a wonderful legacy for all whose lives she touched, especially her children and their spouses, her eight grandchildren and her three surviving brothers.
Nilam Bedi is Sarla’s son.