Columbia resident Jocelyn Cullity was 14 when she transcribed her great-great-great-aunt’s 1856 diary.
Her mother’s English family had lived and worked for five generations across India, including Delhi, Kolkata and Lucknow – the city where Cullity’s great-great-great-aunt would write her diary while being barricaded in inside for months as Indian resistance efforts clashed outside. It was this journal that prompted Cullity to eventually write two historical fiction novels about India’s first struggle for independence.
“This is what the English, and sometimes the BBC, still call the great mutiny,” Cullity said at a Meet the Author event for his novel “The Envy of Paradise” at the Boone County History and Culture Center on Saturday morning.
His first novel, “Amah and the Silk Winged Pigeons,“ was born from a short story Cullity published at the university. The book is the culmination of 10 years of research into the lives of Indian and African women who lived in Lucknow in 1857 and who today remain virtually unknown and unrecognized in public historical knowledge of Indian colonial history.
One such woman she has studied is Begum Hazrat Mahal, the ex-wife of the king of Awadh, Wajid ‘Ali Shah, one of the uprising’s most prominent leaders. She is one of the figures highlighted in Cullity’s work.
But Cullity’s original short story was written from the perspective of a character based on his great-great-great-aunt. When she began her research for the novel in 2007, the 150th anniversary of the uprisings, she was flabbergasted by how all of the textbooks reprinted at the time excluded Hazrat Mahal and all the Indian, African and English women who had funded and led the fight. against the English subjugation of India.
Stunned by the historical inaccuracy of these reprints, Cullity decided that his story would not be about the English at all.
“Instead, I wanted it to be from the Indian perspective,” she said.
Cullity embarked on a vast research journey, poring over the diaries of soldiers, the stacks of tax records of elite female courtesans who helped fund uprisings and the accounts of highly skilled Ethiopian women, formerly slaves, which formed a special wing of Wajid Ali Shah’s suite.
“I’ve been to India a lot,” Cullity said. “No one had ever talked about Africans in India. I didn’t know anything about them. And when I discovered this in 2014, I was seven years into research. I was already writing drafts of this story.”
By the time of its release, “Amah and the Silk Winged Pigeons” had become a story of Hazrat Mahal’s leadership in the 1856-1858 uprisings in Lucknow, told from the perspective of one of Wajid Ali’s bodyguards. Shah.
His second novel, “The envy of paradise”, extends this counter-story and tells the story of those who fought against English rule during the uprisings, as Queen Victoria asserted crown reign over India instead of corporate political rule led by the East India Company. It is told from the perspective of Hazrat Mahal and Wajid ‘Ali Shah.
“We are still growing with the British agenda,” Cullity said, noting that this narrative’s hegemony around the world undermines both the Indian experience of colonialism and the efforts of the diverse group of women who led the resistance.
While Cullity’s ancestral story is unmistakably English, she said that the public’s understanding, including that of her own family, of English colonial rule of India is romanticized by tales of the victors in history. She said the vulgarity and one-sidedness of language like “The Great Mutiny” made it easy to transcend her ancestral connection and prioritize the evidence revealing this neglected story.
“What drove me to write the character of Amah was the humiliation and disrespect that the English showed Hazrat Mahal and Wajid ‘Ali Shah,” she said.
Diana Moxon, one of some 30 people who attended the event, said she read Cullity’s books after hearing her at a book convention. She invited Cullity to speak on her radio show “Speaking of the Arts” on KOPN and connected with Cullity about her own family history in Lucknow.
One of Moxon’s Welsh ancestors joined the British Army at the age of 14 and was sent to India to fight and occupy the territory.
“I love Jocelyn,” Moxon said. “She’s knowledgeable, educated, and a friend of mine here in Columbia, so I can read her books and ask her questions personally.”