Susham Bedi, 74, Dies; Novelist Who Wrote of Indian Diaspora

Her novels turned a feminist’s eye on the immigrant experience.

Susham Bedi, an Indian emigre whose keen eye for the immigrant experience was celebrated by critics both in India and her adopted homeland, died on Friday in New York City after a long battle with complications from lung disease. She was 74.

Dr. Bedi was a cross-cultural polymath: she published eight major novels in Hindi, and was honored in 2018 by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee; her work is studied regularly in university programs and an anthology of essays about her work by a number of Indian scholars was recently published in India; as a professor she taught scores of first-generation Americans Hindi at Columbia University, and later taught Hindi literature at the City College of New York, among other colleges and universities; and as an actor, she appeared in films like The Big Sick and A Walk Among the Tombstones and on television in True Crime: New York City, Third Watch, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Dr. Bedi’s work explored questions of identity, authenticity, and transformation in the context of the immigrant experience. Her most famous novel, Havan — translated by David Rubin into English as The Fire Sacrifice — traversed the internal dichotomies of women immigrants: torn between tradition and the freedoms of their new home, laying bare, as critic Susheela Rao wrote in World Literature Today, “the tendency of many Indians to cling superficially to [that which] is in conflict with the new culture.”

In The Portrait of Mira, Bedi’s protagonist straddled the worlds of traditional homemaker and artists, of wife and lover, with a complexity not often granted the immigrant population.

Her poetry highlighted characters who also struggled with the tension of women expected to uphold the traditional roles of her youth. In “Home and Garden,” she wrote:

My love desires

open skies

rainbow colors

I need to lie on green grass

not these colorful dupattas

or these silky sarees

modest, protecting

the soft-mattressed beds


silk nighties

of disillusionment



floral curtains of reassurances…

I don’t need a house

security or compromises

rotting society

or the lopsided

civilization of yours….

Her poems were controversial in India. When “Home and Garden” was published, angry parents, worried their daughters would follow her rebellious path, lined the streets outside of the newspaper offices, demanding she write a retraction.

Bedi attributed the nuance of her characters directly to her experience in the United States, saying, “to write tirelessly free of any questions, of freedom, could only be possible in America….The real voice in my writing came after I left India.”

Susham Prabha Bedi (nee Dhameja) was born July 1, 1945 in Delhi, India. She studied both art and science at Delhi University, and began working as an actor on Indian television in the late-1960s. While completing her PhD on Hindi Drama from Punjab University in 1979, she became the Belgian correspondent for The Times of India.

After immigrating to New York in 1979, Dr. Bedi continued her radio and television work as a contributor to the BBC weekly program, Letters from Abroad, and as an actor in film and television in New York. She published eight novels, two short story collections, and a poetry collection in Hindi, and her criticism and essays were published widely.

Bedi was also a devoted professor, who wrote extensively about the challenges of teaching language acquisition to non-native speakers. She was on the team of writers and programmers who developed the first computerized Hindi alphabet. A professor, and later Professor Emeritus, of Hindi language and literature at Columbia, she was instrumental in the formation of the Hindi-Urdu program at New York University, and continued to teach Hindu myths and fairy tales at City College until her death.

Bedi was a patient, kind and loving wife, mother, and grandmother. She is survived by her husband, Dr. Rahul Bedi; her two children; and four grandchildren.

David Andrew Stoler