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Fiction Historical

The Envy of Paradise

by (author) Jocelyn Cullity

Inanna Publications
Initial publish date
Oct 2019
Historical, Literary, Contemporary Women
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2019
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Finalist for the 2020 International Book Award for Multicultural Fiction.

In 1858, the British took over the city of Lucknow, paving the way for Queen Victoria's reign over India. But what happened to Begam Hazrat Mahal, the woman of African-Indian descent who had valiantly organized a final key resistance to British rule, and to her ex-husband, Wajid 'Ali Shah, the last King in India, who remained imprisoned by the British? The Envy of Paradise tells their stories.

Jocelyn Cullity's English family lived in India for five generations. A sequel to the award-winning Amah & the Silk-Winged Pigeons, her second novel about the takeover of India by Britain is an exquisitely told tale of 19th-century India -- a deep rendering of the moment that India as a country was colonized; a brilliant illustration of Hazrat Mahal's fearless character and the depths of betrayal the last King in India faced.

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, International Book Awards

Excerpt: The Envy of Paradise (by (author) Jocelyn Cullity)

I could not have defended Lucknow without Jai Lal; he is sharper than everyone else. Sharp in intellect as well as in his achkan coat fastened with silver studs, and edged with lace. Lots of intelligent courtiers worked in Lucknow but Jai Lal is the most clever commander I could hope for. At the palace, he was a popular courtier my ex-husband respected, and that had everything to do with why he could rally our Awadh Force in the first place. He directed the digging and repairing of entrenchments, the planting of mines, the ordering and stacking of supplies, the management of labourers to build barricades in an effort to keep the English out--all of this was under Jai Lal. He supervised the attacks. His ability had little to do with the fact we were not able to prevent the English from taking over the city. So many of our men came with no military training--simple peasants from the countryside. The English had better fire power, and thousands of men suddenly brought out from England to crush us. The situation was beyond us all. But now Jai Lal is back on his feet. Our minds work together, our hearts, too. Both of us feel compelled to care for Lucknow and its people. We have worked together during the worst of the fighting. I've come to comfort him in the hardest hours and he has done the same for me. I've never known a sibling, but I've had sisters in my friend Amah, in the other Ethiopian bodyguards in the Rose Platoon, in the dancers at the Envy of Paradise. Now I have a twin brother in Jai Lal.

It is good to be here at this wondrous mud-caked fort in the fields. With my son. With Jai Lal. And Jyoti Singh. It is even good to be here with the scowling Mariam who sits on the farthest bed in our room with her flower-shaped bowl and her basket of clothes held close, looking at no one.

Our primary concern is to pay our men. Our camp is becoming the headquarters of activity despite the disarray the English takeover of Lucknow caused. Our army and followers grow to fifteen thousand men. The most effective way to keep these forces intact is to pay them well. We promised months ago to pay double what the English pay Indian soldiers, to help those men to defect.

I have sold a lot of my jewellery for rupees. And fortunately for us, two wealthy men in Lucknow donated five hundred thousand and two hundred thousand rupees each to the resistance. That money has gone far; however, revenue collection is an ongoing task.

Jai Lal calls to one of Jyoti Singh's gardeners in the courtyard. "Are there rich men living nearby?"

"Are there what?" The gardener, a thin man with a face scorched by the sun, laughs. "Not nowadays. You won't find a man with extra rupees around here."

"Are there any country homes belonging to Chief Ministers, to royal accountants?"

The gardener smiles and the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes deepen. "A few. But those men left long ago. Their gardens are used by bandits as shitting grounds."

"Awful! We'll have to make promises of payment to our men and hope they will stay with us." Jai Lal fastens the top silver stud on his achkan coat.

"Jai Lal, where are you going?" I ask.

"To see a little more of the land, Huzoor." He bows his head, and leaves the courtyard.

The gardener smiles. "Plenty of land. But he won't be visiting rich neighbours."

I go into our room and lie down on one of the beds. Birjis snores softly on his back on a bed near me. Mariam continues to sit up on the bed farthest from us. The evening's darkness comes on swiftly. I wait for sleep. Outside in the courtyard, Maher the animal attendant coos to our tiny, guli pigeons in their brass birdcages while he feeds them by the light of a small lantern. He talks to the pigeons, reminding them about their aviaries back home in Lucknow--the wide-open space beneath the wire netting, the soft grass, and plentiful seed soaked in ghee. He tells them about Lucknow's famous trainers who once flew twenty-five thousand birds with great skill, the three hundred rupees those great men received each per month from the King for their services. "And that is not all," he says to the pigeons. "You little birds should know that the elephant trainers and the horse trainers used to receive nine thousand rupees each from His Majesty. And so did I! I did, little pigeons! His Majesty's rupee coins ran through my fingers each month for my dangerous work with the butting rams!"

Someone else in the courtyard growls that he will butt the animal attendant's head if he doesn't quiet down. Then all is hushed except for the trill of crickets, the mosquitos that whine. Fireflies wink in the night through our windows. I am almost asleep when there's a muffled noise at the door and Jai Lal appears with some of our men behind him, all of them holding lanterns. When Jai Lal opens one of the heavy, muddy boxes by their feet, he looks up at me and smiles. It is filled with rupee coins.

The old gardener comes and stands near Jai Lal with his mouth open. He touches the money. "Oh dear God, not English rupees either. His Majesty's rupees." Jai Lal and his men carry the muddy boxes of money into our room. We watch in awe, sitting up straight on the beds, shawls wrapped firmly around each of us. That is Jai Lal. Treasure-seeker. If there were only one home in range, he would find that home, and open its garden gate. For months, he found hordes of jewels and money buried for safekeeping in dirty boxes deep in the ground of Lucknow's abandoned homes. His best find was three month's pay for the Awadh Force.

Usually, Jai Lal knows how to make that money last. He moves the boxes further into our room. Outside, he orders his men to stay on guard.

In the morning, Jai Lal and I settle ourselves in the fort's rooftop pavilion. It's warm but the shade is nonetheless lovely. We listen to the men being led through the bamboo forest toward the fort. One by one, they emerge through the small opening in the cactus hedge. Onions are frying in pans on a fire in the courtyard. On the roof, near our pavilion, a young soldier and Birjis are kite-fighting, their blue and red kites sailing high in the air. The strings on their kites are coated with gum and glass, and one of them will bring down the other. I scold Birjis, tell him he is getting too old for kite-fighting.

"Let him play, Huzoor," Jai Lal says. He stands with his hands on the low wall that edges the pavilion. "Birjis wrote to some of our friends outside of Awadh early this morning with me--to ensure everyone knows what has happened, that there has been another annexation. He wrote eloquently about the dethroning of his father, taking everything his father had, and the annexation of Awadh as a further act of treachery. Let him fly kites for a morning."

We hear someone coming up to the roof. Mariam pauses at the top of the stairs with her flower-shaped bowl filled with wet clothes. She does not greet us. She moves to the low wall near Jai Lal and lays out a light shawl to dry. We watch her as she goes downstairs again and returns with cups of green tea with lemon juice that she forcefully puts into our hands. "To get rid of the smell from your kebabs. Even up here garlic and onions are emanating from you both."

Only because she was my teacher does she get away with this sort of behaviour. Jai Lal sips the tea and lays a bet of his last five kebabs on the kite-fight going on. Mariam scowls, and hugs her bowl to herself as she gazes up at the handsome paper kites. "What happened to all our kite fights these last months? Nothing in the sky but the deafening sound of guns. Pop-pop-pop." She flings out a hand in the direction of all the men in the courtyard. "Trying to match English guns with their own. Pop-pop-pop!" She turns to me. "Who gave you permission to take His Majesty's men, and put him in charge," she thumbs Jai Lal. "His Majesty would not like it one bit. He asked his men to put down their arms, and his bodyguards like your friend Amah were supposed to put down their arms, but you supply them all with weapons."

I look past her to the bamboo forest. She's right about the noise that leaked into Lucknow's rose gardens and hung over the river until the pop-pop-pop was so deafening that everyone in Lucknow had to slam their shutters, bar their doors with wood, close up their shops, and bury their jewels in boxes down deep in the soil. Even if you lived, as Mariam did, in the Envy of Paradise, a brick building covered with stucco and hidden away in thick gardens filled with sitar music, you still heard the pop-pop-pop of the guns and the clink-clink of the swords. Mariam moves to the other side of the pavilion, and considers the men behind the fort who sit in the fields. She speaks above the laughter between Birjis and the young soldier whose kites bounce off each other and away. "Indian men copying English men. Men copying men. As if that's going to get you anywhere powerful. There's no doubt about the harm done to the boys who once upon a time only knew how to fly kites!" She turns to the kite-fighters. "Boys like this soldier who squints through a gun barrel, scrunching up his ridiculously young face."

Editorial Reviews

"A footnote to the Indian Mutiny is here enlarged, polished like a jewel, and presented in a dazzling story of resistance against British domination. Loss of personal liberty is set against loss of a kingdom in a subtle and evocative narrative. Warmly recommended."
-- Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, author of The Great Uprising in India 1857-1858 and The Last King in India

"In this luscious and touching sequel to Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons, we follow Wajid 'Ali Shah, the last King in India, and his ex-wife Begam Hazrat Mahal, as "the world of the past dissolves." What Jocelyn Cullity has accomplished is the astonishing re-imagination of a time and place, as well as compelling historical characters, that come richly present to our senses. We smell and taste this world. We wear, and relinquish, its jewels. We grieve and rage against its losses."
--Janet Burroway, author of Writing Fiction and Raw Silk

"I was a huge fan of Amah & the Silk-Winged Pigeons and so it was with delight to find that Jocelyn Cullity's thrilling sequel, The Envy of Paradise, continues this important story with the same vivid impact."
--Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men and The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story

"Jocelyn Cullity's powerful novel, The Envy of Paradise, illuminates a dark period in India's history. A riveting story of the fall of Lucknow to British imperialism, sensually told through the eyes of Begam Hazrat Mahal and her estranged husband, King Wajid 'Ali Shah as they attempt reclamation of their heritage. Cullity gives a taut, dramatic account of what it means to endure loss."
--Catharine Leggett, author of In Progress and The Way to Go Home

"The Envy of Paradise tells the little-known story of what happened to those who fought domination by the English in India right up until the bitter end of what some call the first fight for independence in 1858, the year Queen Victoria announced her reign over India. Cullity's novel is a sensual rendering of an essential part of India's history-an important read!"
--Hena Ahmad, author of Postnational Feminisms: Postcolonial Identities and Cosmopolitanism in the Works of Kamala Markandaya, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Anita Desai

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