An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in the Raj.

Author:Ford, Amanda
Position:Book review
 
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Cohen, Benjamin B., An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in the Raj. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019. xi+347 pages. Hardcover, $28.95.

The study of British rule in India is generally divided into two categories--before 1857 and after. The shock of the Sepoy Mutiny created ripple effects that were felt not only in India, but throughout the entirety of the British Empire. The consequences of this rebellion were felt politically, socially, and culturally and it is hard to overstate the importance of this division in describing the difference between before and after. Or so we think. Benjamin Cohen's An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in the Raj uses a sexual scandal to shrink this demarcation and highlight the ways in which lived experience can complicate this neat historical division. Rather than a more traditional monograph with a tightly structured thesis and supporting narrative, Cohen's work is a narratively driven exploration of race, class, gender, politics and empire. An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad is less interested in answering questions than it is in posing them.

At the heart of this story is a couple--Ellen and Mehdi Hassan. She was Anglo-Indian, daughter of an Irish immigrant, and he was from a middling Indian Muslim family. They married when she was nineteen (probably) and he went to become a powerful member of the Deccan political structure, essentially second in command to the prime minster. Mehdi was called to the bar and the couple even traveled to Britain and where they were briefly received by Queen Victoria herself. The first third of the book traces their family backgrounds and Mehdi's meteoric rise within Deccan political society, and Cohen pays particular attention to the ways in which having an Anglo-Indian wife made this ascent possible. However, Mehdi's ambition and success also made enemies, and Ellen became an easy target through which they could bring him down. That brings us to the scandal at the heart of the story. On April 6, 1892 an eight-page pamphlet titled, "An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad" was published anonymously. This shocking document argued that not only were Ellen and Mehdi not legally married, Ellen was a prostitute before publicly presenting herself as the wife of a public official. In response to the release of such a salacious document, Mehdi sued the supposed author, a man named Mitra, and for the next nine months the two engaged in a very public court...

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