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Fiction Historical

Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons

by (author) Jocelyn Cullity

Inanna Publications
Initial publish date
Sep 2017
Historical, Asian American, Contemporary Women
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2017
    List Price
  • Downloadable audio file

    Publish Date
    Sep 2020
    List Price

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Winner of the 2018 American Bookfest Best Book Award for Historical Fiction; Shortlisted for the 2018 GOETHE Book Awards for Post-1750s Historic Fiction; Shortlisted for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize; Finalist for the 2018 International Book Awardfor Historical Fiction

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?

About the author

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.

Jocelyn Cullity's profile page


  • Short-listed, Mary Sarton Award (Historical Fiction)
  • Short-listed, The Montaigne Medal/Eric Hoffer Award
  • Short-listed, Foreword Indie Awards (Historical Fiction)

Excerpt: Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons (by (author) Jocelyn Cullity)

"Newspaper sales have been banned in Calcutta," Rasheed says, giving his empty plate to a servant boy. "It is very hard to know what is going on."

"Things are getting serious for the Company," Begam Sahiba says.

"There are rumours everywhere about men who want to see the English ousted from every single town," Rasheed says.

"We don't need those kind of men," Jai Lal repeats. "I need men who will listen to me."

"Those men are just as dangerous as the English," Begam Sahiba says. "Their behaviour just as undignified."

"There are resistances all over Awadh," Akbar says again with awe. "We heard it on the train. Indians are nervous. I tell you, there are angry men who want to come here, to Lucknow. To help get the English out."

"We don't want them here," Begam Sahiba says sharply, "to help anyone. The English are in a corner. Three thousand people inside the Residency, cut off completely from the outside, and outnumbered. We can do it ourselves, but we will not behave in an unruly way. We will not behave like Englishmen who eat pigs and drink wine, who bite greased cartridges, who destroy Hindu and Muslim temples on the pretence of making roads, who wish to institute English schools, who build churches and send clergymen into the streets and alleys to preach the Christian religion, neglecting our places of worship. We will not stoop to such levels. We will ask for their surrender. Peacefully. That is the perfect symbol. Surrender at Lucknow: a symbolic act to the advantage of the whole of northern India. We do not have to indulge in misbehaviour." She turns to Jai Lal. "We don't need those foreign Indian marauders in Lucknow."

"Huzoor," Jai Lal says, his eyes on the ground. "I must tell you one thing. I have recruited a skilled contingent of newcomers from outside the city. Some from far away. We had to. So many Lakhnavis have left. However, these particular newcomers are ready to serve us. I have made certain of that."

She stares at him, pulling her shawl around herself.

"I can assure you these particular men have the interests of Lucknow at heart," Jai Lal says. "We have selected carefully. They've seen what the English have done in other places. They are in disbelief and shock about what has happened to His Majesty, that the English would simply take over the Kingdom of Awadh. They want to help, Huzoor. They have experience, make good soldiers. They know we'll pay them well. We even have a Tamil who has come all the way from Madras to help. We have a solid Force. So tomorrow," Jai Lal raises his hands, the muscles in his arms taut as he walks to the door, "I will ask the palace advisors to compose a letter, urging Sir Henry Lawrence to surrender. We will send it after the coronation, which all of my men are waiting for."

"Everything is being packed up," Begam Sahiba says.

"Huzoor, the coronation must happen as soon as possible. Then we will surround the Residency." Jai Lal bows and vanishes into the night.

Amah also walks to the door, but she cannot leave. She asks, "Is there news from His Majesty?"

Begam Sahiba picks up the envelope with the letter the messengers brought. "The Queen Mother needs perfumes from Lucknow. She is keeping what fragrance she has to offer as a gift to Queen Victoria. She has an invitation for an audience with their Queen. She is sick with worry, having waited so very long to plead her son's case. And London is terribly expensive. She wants to come home."

"And my mother?" Amah asks tentatively. "Is there any news of the staff?"

"Oh, dear!" A rush of light enters Begam Sahiba's eyes and she reaches out for Amah's hands. "You didn't ask. You've been waiting all this time. There is only one letter from His Majesty's advisors, but she is well. The advisors in Calcutta pass on the news that everyone is well. Your medicines arrived, and she is well."

"She is definitely well," Rasheed says, and Akbar agrees, their faces flashing warmth upon Amah.

At the palace, Amah goes to her mother's room. There are times that her heart swells all on its own, and it doesn't let questions in her mind take over. She digs up the box, and, from the three rubies and five pearls she has left, she takes out large ruby and goes to the kitchens to find a boy who will sell the ruby to Judea the jeweller in the morning.

The next day, Rasheed is dressed like a Hindu holy man in orange robes, and Akbar is disguised in pyjamas with very wide legs like upper-class youths like to wear. Their long faces are flushed with rest and good food. They get up quickly when Amah comes in. She gives them the small china vessel filled with rose water that she's purchased for her mother, and offers them money for the trouble of taking such a fragile package all the way to Calcutta. "No need," Rasheed says. "It's a pleasing task. Your mother will be pleased."


The Tamil who has come from Madras is a lanky, young, Hindu man named Malamud who doesn't speak to anyone. Malamud is fast with a gun, fast on foot. Some of Jai Lal's ignorant foreigners stare at Amah--they stare at Fatima, too--at any black, female guard with a rifle. But Malamud does not stare. Instead, he lowers his gaze respectfully and puts his hands together in greeting. The next day, while the palace continues to prepare for Begam Sahiba's arrival, Amah watches him perform military drills at the Chattar Manzil and then quietly joins him. They both use rifles, spurning the old-fashioned muskets that are slower to load and fire. "You are ready for much more than military ceremonies and parades," Malamud says at last, shaking his head at her accuracy.

"I'm a bodyguard. My duty is to protect, not to harm," she tells him.

He is about her age, and, after watching her practise for some time, he suddenly opens up to her, talks to her like a cousin, as if he's known her a long while. "Your name, where I come from, your name means 'mother.' Amma."

"Where I come from it means, 'companion.'"

"Suits you either way," Malamud says, and smiles, his gaze lowered.

"What about your own mother?" Amah asks.

"Passed away now. My father, too, a long time ago. My mother made a living as an ayah. Took care of English children. That, too, was a long time ago. I miss them, have sad feelings about them. You?"

"My mother is in Calcutta. I have sad feelings about her, too."

Malamud waits for some moments and then starts to practise again. She is thankful to him for understanding she doesn't want to say more. A rush of wounded anger fills her. She is pleased that her mother is well, but she is also baffled by her silence. Could she not have sent a small note to her after all of this time? She wonders if her mother is still irritated with her. But she can't know. At the best of times, her mother seems to deliberately hide away a part of herself from her daughter. A mixture of Ethiopian pride and Indian certainty in her mother's ways. These qualities are good qualities, she thinks, continuing to practise, knowing she shouldn't carry her mother like a burden in her mind.

Malamud's been in conflict with the English in other parts of India. While they practise, he tells her stories. "The English are securing loyal troops from all over the country to stamp out the revolts." He squints down the barrel of his gun, lining up the clay pots on the top of the wall. "There's this man named Neill who has come up from Madras with his battalion. Brigadier General James Neill. He's an old soldier from Scotland with white flowing hair and a moustache who believes his God has chosen him to punish any resistance he can find. Saintly Christian Crusader. More like Lucifer, or a whispering jinni in a smokeless fire than any saint you've heard of. He's completely crazy." Malamud picks off the clay pots and reloads his rifle.

"So," he says. "I'm in Howrah, sitting at the back of the train with some villagers, all of us trying not to attract attention. The departure time comes and goes, and there's this commotion on the platform. This man Neill wants to hold the train for his troops. The stationmaster tells him that, although he might be in charge of his battalion, he is not in charge of the railway, so Neill seizes the stationmaster, the engineer, and the stoker and arrests them--wishes out loud he could hang them--until finally his troops arrive and they get on board."


"The same as ever," Malamud says. He laughs, his black eyes warm before they turn flat, like mud. "But there's more. This Brigadier General James Neill's a real sportsman. He marches to Allahabad setting up executions all the way, with makeshift gallows, calling to his men to bag pandies for Brigadier General James Neill's hangings. They overran villages, burned children alive, stabbed men who were planting carrots. He gets to Allahabad, and within a week he's cleared the town of anyone who might stand up to him. Thousands dead. There were fellows who simply looked the wrong way when he was passing who got lynched. He killed everyone--men, women, little children mown down, picked off one by one while they were running away. The reign of terror, everyone was calling it. Horrible."

Malamud puts down his rifle and lights one of his Madras beedies. He smokes for a while, the sharp, strange smell filling the air. "I skirted the area, ducked into ditches, and played dead plenty of times. I heard about it all from a mother who got away. But I saw enough. The air was thick with smoke over the fields, and wild animals ate the limbs they could reach of the hanging corpses." He takes another draw on the beedi and crushes it against the wall. "Who knows what his plans are now. It's important that man doesn't get into Lucknow. Communications with hunters like him need to be interrupted. I'm waiting for Jai Lal's consent to cut the telegraph wires."

Amah bows low to Malamud and does not get up. "Welcome to Lucknow," she says.

Editorial Reviews

"A superbly crafted historical novel with impressive attention to a detailed accuracy of events, Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons is an extraordinarily entertaining read from cover to cover."
--Midwest Book Review

"This is a beautiful and horrifying book....This book is far more than a necessary history lesson, however; it is also a journey into the lost scents, tastes and textures of a cosmopolitan and richly cultured society, and an elegy for that loss."
&mdashThe Temz Review

"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

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