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 throughout India, including Delhi, Kolkata and Lucknow — the city where Cullity’s great-great-great aunt would write her journal while barricaded inside for months as Indian resistance efforts clashed outside. It was this journal that compelled Cullity to eventually write two historical fiction novels about India’s first fight for independence.
“It’s what the English, and sometimes the BBC, still call The Great Mutiny,” said Cullity at a Meet the Author event for her novel “The Envy of Paradise” at the Boone County History and Culture Center on Saturday morning.
Her first novel, “Amah and the Silk Winged Pigeons,” grew out of a short story Cullity published in graduate school. The book is the culmination of 10 years of research into the lives of Indian and African women who lived in Lucknow during 1857 and who today remain virtually unknown and unrecognized in public knowledge of Indian colonial history.
One such woman she 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 had been written from the perspective of a character based on her great-great-great aunt. When she started researching for the novel in 2007, the 150th anniversary of the uprisings, she was floored by the way all the textbooks reprinted at the time excluded Hazrat Mahal and all the Indian, African and English women who’d financed and led the fight against English subjugation of India.
Stunned by the historical inaccuracy of these reprintings, Cullity decided her story wouldn’t be about the English at all.
“Instead, I wanted this to be about the Indian point of view,” she said.
Cullity embarked on an extensive research journey, poring over soldiers’ journals, stacks of tax records from elite Courtesan women who helped finance the uprisings and accounts of highly skilled, formerly enslaved Ethiopian women who comprised a special wing of the Wajid Ali Shah’s retinue.
“I’ve been to India a lot,” said Cullity. “Nobody had ever talked about Africans in India. I didn’t know anything about them. And when I found that in 2014, I was seven years into the 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 point of view of one of Wajid Ali Shah’s body guards.
Her second novel, “The Envy of Paradise,” extends this counter-history and tells the story of those who fought against English dominion during the uprisings, as Queen Victoria asserted crown rule over India in place of the corporate-political rule helmed by the East India Company. It’s told from the point of view of both Hazrat Mahal and Wajid ‘Ali Shah.
“We’re all still growing up with the British curriculum,” said Cullity, emphasizing that the hegemony of this narrative throughout the world undermines both the Indian experience of colonialism and the efforts of the diverse group of women who led resistance.
Though Cullity’s own ancestral history is unmistakably English, she said public understanding, including those of her own family, of English colonial rule of India are romanticized by narratives of history’s victors. 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 overlooked history.
“What drove me to write the character of Amah was the humiliation and disrespect the English showed Hazrat Mahal and Wajid ‘Ali Shah,” she said.
Diana Moxon, one of around 30 people who attended the event, said she’d read Cullity’s books after hearing her talk 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’s history in Lucknow.
One of Moxon’s Welsh ancestors joined the British army at 14 years old and was shipped to India to fight and occupy territory there.
“I love Jocelyn,” Moxon said. “She’s knowledgable, well-read, and she’s a friend of mine here in Columbia, so I get to read her books and personally ask her questions.”