Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons
a novel by Jocelyn Cullity

278 Pages
October 05, 2017
New Fiction All Titles Novel



Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons a novel by Jocelyn Cullity

Prior to 1857, the year it was engulfed by tragic historical conflict, the cosmopolitan city of Lucknow thrived on open-mindedness, great prosperity and pride, the city a magnet for musicians, poets, painters and chefs, drawing the finest cultural talent from other parts of India and the wider world. It proved too tempting a prize for the English East India Company not to attempt a takeover of the Kingdom of Awadh with its capital city, Lucknow. The devastation and disaster that came to be known as "the Red Year" was a turning point in the history of Indian colonialism. It gave birth to the self-conscious, anti-colonial nationalism that would define the next ninety years, eventually leading to Gandhi’s nonviolent measures to oust the British from India once and for all.

Synthesizing a wealth of meticulous historical research, Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons plunges the reader into the complex drama and historical dilemmas faced by both ordinary and extraordinary Lakhnavis (people of Lucknow) at the time. The story is centered on a group of strong, independent women who take action to defend their world and way of life. The novel's protagonist, Amah, is a member of the Rose Platoon, an elite corps of female military guards of African descent who have protected Lucknow’s royalty for generations. Appalled by the mounting affronts and threats to her absent ex-husband's kingdom, Begam Hazrat Mahal, one of Lucknow’s former queens and also of African descent, enlists Amah to be her eyes and ears and help coordinate resistance to the British takeover.

When the women decide to take on the English colonists who declare rule, what will be the ultimate price of the women’s loyalty to the royal family and to the place they’ve grown to love? 

"Jocelyn Cullity's Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons highlights the lost history of the women descended from African slaves who fought so valiantly to save Lucknow during the famous 1857 resistance to English rule. Cullity—whose English family lived in India for five generations—infuses the grand narrative sweep of her story with poetic elegance, and succeeds in adjusting our lens on the past to illuminate a crucial part of Indian history."

—Prajwal Parajuly, The Gurkha's Daughter and Land Where I Flee

"This book goes straight into the category of good historical fiction that brings the past vividly alive. Inspired by her own family's history, Jocelyn Cullity brings style and flair to an episode of the Great Uprising in India. Beautifully written and deeply researched, this debut novel will hold and intrigue its readers. Warmly recommended."

—Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Engaging Scoundrels, True Tales of Old Lucknow

"I admire the lucid, fluent prose and shimmering atmosphere of this novel, which in many ways recalls the best of E.M. Forster. Cullity's setting is redolent of Indian life, its tastes and smells, its colors and textures. She handles the themes of empire and cultural conflict with huge tact and clarity. Her storytelling is first-rate. Jocelyn Cullity is a fresh voice, and Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons is a memorable achievement."

—Jay Parini, The Last Station

"Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons, based on real people and events, is a novel prodigiously researched, in which the research is so thoroughly composted into character that we lose ourselves in the rich settings and these imagined lives. A wonderful read."

—Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Jocelyn Cullity's English family lived in India for five generations. When she was fourteen, she transcribed her great-great-great aunt’s diary about being held hostage for five months during the 1857 "Indian Mutiny" in the city of Lucknow—and the event stuck with her. Based on a true story of colonial events in Lucknow, Cullity's debut novel, Amah and the Silk-winged Pigeons, illustrates for the first time the lost history of the Afro-Indian, Muslim women who fought against the English hoping to save the city they loved. Her short stories and nonfiction have been published in many journals including The Writer’s Chronicle, Blackbird, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, and Minerva Rising. Her documentary film about young women in China, Going to the Sea, aired on The Women’s Television Network, The Knowledge Network, and won the Lester B. Pearson Award for International Development at the REEL Women’s Film Festival in Canada. She was born in Australia, grew up north of Toronto, Canada, and has lived for periods of time in both India and England. She teaches in the BFA in Creative Writing program at Truman State University, and currenly lives in Columbia, Missouri.

     Amah first realizes how much she loves the city of Lucknow in the same
month she first fears losing it. March in 1856 is unusually dusty and
anxious. The Gomti river,cutting east-west through the city of Lucknow,
does not swell with its regular boisterous bathers. Smoke from funeral
pyres hangs suspended in the air. The ashes taken out to the middle of
the river by boatsmen glitter black and gold before they are extinguished
in the water. Cool dawns brim with the sharp edges of things to come.
     Thousands of Englishmen want to take over Lucknow and Amah
stands alone in the crowded market, observing the English East India
Company’s auction. The noise of frightened animals fills the sky. The
Englishmen have emptied stables and menageries all over the city and
now they are selling off horses, elephants, camels, cheetahs, and silkwinged
pigeons to foreign merchants. Amah’s favourite horse is among
them, a brown Waler from Australia—a gift from the King to show his
admiration for her riding skills.…
    Amah pushes through the crowd to the line-up of horses and a Company
Englishman with red hair and a dimpled chin bars her way. She
smells whiskey on his breath, hears hatred in his words. He puts his
hand across her rifle, and stops her from going forward. She reaches
out to stroke her mare despite him. The auctioneer mops his face with
a handkerchief, slams down his hammer, and nods toward an Indian
merchant, a foreigner from far away. The Englishman’s hand stays firm
against Amah. “The horses have sold, African slave boy,” the man says.
     Amah’s hair is cut short. She wears a tunic, and a skirt with jodhpurs.
He does not recognize her as a young woman, but she does not care to
correct him. “There’s been no agreement,” she says. “These horses are
not yours to sell. They are royal horses. And this is my horse.”
     “They belong to the King, and we’ve deposed him. It’s time to get
rid of them, boy.”
     She reaches for her mare’s reins but the Company man stops her with
his pistol. “I said she’s already sold. You’re trespassing. Get back now.”
     …She pats the animal’s warm flank, as if everything is alright, before
she leaves the auction to find Begam Sahiba, the King’s ex-wife.

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