There are certain books – not many- that I pick up to read and soon put down, not because I don’t fancy them, but I simply didn’t feel it was the right time (for either the book or me) to read it. Such was the case with Jocelyn Cullity’s Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons (2017, Inanna Publications). At the time I was not ready to read a book with exotic names and a locale I was not familiar with. The history of India is not well-known to me and my brain wasn’t ready to take on a work of historical fiction such as Amah. Consequently, it languished near the bottom of my TBR (to be read) stack. Then, one day I was ready to give Amah a second chance, I am happy I did!The setting of Amah is the Northern Indian city of Lucknow, a cosmopolitan hub where religions meet (and peacefully co-exist), intellectuals debate and the arts flourish. From Wikipedia: “In 1856, the British East India Company abolished local rule and took complete control of the city along with the rest of Awadh and, in 1857, transferred it to the British Raj.”
This is where Amah’s extraordinary story begins. The British are auctioning off the King’s animals while he has been exiled to Calcutta. 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.
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 silk-winged 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.
Together with Begam Sahiba, they try to find ways to get the King back in power and hold back the British who are inundating the city and wresting control away from the inhabitants, knocking down temples to make way for roads and taking land rights away from farmers and taxing them beyond their means. They exist in an untenable situation that gets graver day by day until the British push them too far and rebellion appears to be the only recourse to save the city they love.
Amah is a very strong person; she doesn’t want to leave Lucknow (as her mother does to be with the King’s entourage) as she feels it is her place to watch over the King’s belongings. Her implacable aunt torments her for not following her mother’s example, but Amah is resolute in her determination to protect the city. Begam Sahiba is also a strong-willed woman of action, using monies of her own to feed, equip and pay a small contingent of the King’s loyal followers to repel the British.
As I read this book, I quickly came to discern what an exceptional work of historical fiction Amah was. It is more history than fiction, actually. The outcome of Lucknow can be read in any history of India, but what transpires in the minds of those who see their beautiful, peaceful city fall into the hands of those that would oppress them, taking what is not theirs, is what Ms. Cullity truly excels at. You immediately side with Amah and Begam Sahiba against the heavy-handed British and those such as the evil and seditious Abhi whose greed keeps him close to the British.
Begam Sahiba and Amah both see ghosts, feel their thin residues of comfort, hear skeletons of melodies they once knew. Their hands pick at the stones beneath them. Stones that border the English rose garden near the Residency [where the British live], that were used to build the old English church.
Amah and Begam Sahiba could sit on those stones, Amah sees, and not make their way among them. Or they could move back down the hillside, stand fast, the stars above them. They have this choice. “We must change our fate,” Amah says to her friend. “We must change our Kismet.”
A beautiful, transcendent story of colonial India, it deserves to be read by those who appreciate strong female protagonists as well as those who would like to learn more about the injustice of forced colonization (and destruction) of cultures that were flourishing in their own right, much like that of Canada’s indigenous peoples before First Contact with Europeans.
Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons will go on my long list for a “Very Best!” Book Award for Historical Fiction.