Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 September 2020

'An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad' tells the scandalous story of Mehdi Hasan and Ellen Donnelly

Benjamin Cohen writes about the 19th century marriage in India whose notorious trial echoed throughout the British Empire

Author Benjamin Cohen tells a real-life story of 'cancel culture' in 19th-century India. Courtesy Harvard University Press
Author Benjamin Cohen tells a real-life story of 'cancel culture' in 19th-century India. Courtesy Harvard University Press

When ambitious Muslim lawyer Mehdi Hasan and his Indian-­born British wife Ellen Donnelly were presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in the spring of 1888, it seemed like a kind of pinnacle for the couple. “Whoever would have thought,” Hasan wrote in his account of the trip, “that I should come across the sea many thousands of miles and have the good fortune to see my beloved sovereign?”

The moment capped a remarkable ascent, “the kind of success that makes other men jealous”, as University of Utah history professor Benjamin Cohen writes in his fascinating book An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in the Raj.

Hasan had graduated from Canning College in Lucknow, later marrying ­Donnelly, the daughter of an officer in the Indian Army, in 1873. As Cohen notes, had the young couple remained in Lucknow, as “an example of a form of late 19th-century hybridity – a living bridge between Indian and European worlds”, they would likely never have known the peaks of social success they were to reach after they moved to the princely state of Hyderabad and Hasan’s career began its rapid advancement.

The Char Minar, Hyderabad, India, 1895. The Charminar mosque (meaning 'Four Minarets'), was constructed in 1591. From "Round the World in Pictures and Photographs: From London Bridge to Charing Cross via Yokohama and Chicago". [George Newnes Ltd, London, 1895]. Artist Unknown. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Hyderabad in India, 1895, where Mehdi Hasan and his Indian-­born British wife Ellen Donnelly moved to from London. Getty.

By 1885, he’d been appointed acting chief justice of the Hyderabad High Court, and in 1887 he was made chief justice. Two years later, after he returned from his visit to England, Hasan was appointed secretary of state by Mahbub Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad, making him something of a celebrity. During these years, ­Donnelly had also become quite famous for eschewing certain Islamic traditions after converting to the religion in her younger years.

It is true that, had they stayed in Lucknow, they may never have known the acclaim they enjoyed, but the couple would also almost certainly have avoided the calamity that struck them in April 1892, which changed their lives forever.

An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in the Raj. Courtesy Harvard University Press
'An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in the Raj'. Courtesy Harvard University Press

This refers to the appearance of a pamphlet titled An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad. As Cohen notes, “the pamphlet at the epicentre of the scandal was eight pages long and four by six inches in size, a little more than 2,100 words”. Hasan first encountered a copy on April 6 that year. The pamphlet, printed at the Hyderabad Residency Press, claimed, among other things, that Donnelly and her sister had been prostitutes when they lived in Lucknow, that she and Hasan had never been legally married and that he lent her to high-placed officials to help his career.

“The tone of the pamphlet was one of an excited confidant through which the author related his own experiences with Mehdi and Ellen,” Cohen writes. “This intimacy not only made for more compelling reading (replete with exclamation marks, bold, italicised and capitalised text), but also lent credibility to the author’s story.”

As Cohen’s account makes clear, Hasan recognised immediately that this was a dangerous attack. Against the advice of many of his friends, he took the pamphlet’s printer, a man named M A Mitra, to court, filing his case in Hyderabad’s Residency Bazaar Court. His choice to file a case under such jurisdiction,” Cohen ­points out, “stemmed from a belief in British justice.”

The trial began on July 21, 1892, and Cohen brilliantly dramatises its every twist and turn in his book’s central and most gripping chapters. Hasan’s avaricious and slightly bumptious personality was put on full display during the trial, and every particle of ­Donnelly’s reputation was scrutinised mercilessly in a trial that captured the attention of the entire region.

Mitra was acquitted, which was tantamount to ruin for Hasan and his wife. They returned to Lucknow and, as Cohen writes, “we cannot know what the couple was thinking, but it was a poignant moment: while they could continue to redeem their name and seek justice, neither would ever come to Hyderabad again”.

The narrative of this book follows the couple through the long and despondent aftermath, Hasan through his many court appeals and Donnelly through her many largely fruitless pleas to Hyderabad officials for some kind of pension after Hasan’s death. Cohen notes that a book of the trial’s transcripts sold widely all over northern India. That book was an edited and mediated thing, a painting rather than a word-for-word transcript.

In contrast, Cohen’s account in An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad is as different as it is as full with detailed and knowing accounts of this “pamphlet scandal”. Or at least as the scattered and sometimes sketchy nature of the sources allow.

It makes for absorbing reading that is also immediately recognisable in the modern day. In the 21st-century world of “cancel culture”, when rumours and innuendo can spread rapidly from smartphones to laptops and careers can be damaged at the whim of social-media mobs, the fate of Hasan and Donnelly has an appalling relevance. In this as in many things, the Victorian age led the way.

Updated: October 7, 2019 03:58 AM

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