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The University of Utah's College of Humanities Presents Humanities Radio Season 5

Jana Cunningham | Director of Marketing & Communications,
Host of Humanities Radio

Welcome to Humanities Radio

Humanities Radio is the University of Utah College of Humanities' Podcast. Our goal is to lead conversations about the humanities in the 21st century.

We will talk with faculty, students and alumni to share information and ideas about the importance of the humanities in today's world. Listen to our latest and past episodes below!

Latest Episode

Season 5, Episode 6 - Benjamin Cohen: Department of History

Episode 6: Benjamin Cohen, Department of History

Benjamin Cohen, professor of history, discusses his book, “An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in Raj,” which tells the dramatic story of a couple’s rise and fall from elite society in ninetieth century India that set the benchmark for Victorian scandals.

Benjamin Cohen:

So this was the sensation of the moment. And so people in not only in Hyderabad and Lucknow, were following the story, but in Calcutta, which was then India's Colonial Capital and in London were reading verbatim transcripts from what people said each day in the trial. And so that spread the rumors and the testimony, whether true or false, about Ellen, all the way back to London and all across India.

Jana Cunningham:

Hello. Thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Janet Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities, and this season I'm in discussion with professors from across our college about their book publications. I'm currently sitting here with Benjamin Cohen, professor of history, to discuss his book, An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad: Scandal in Raj, which tells the dramatic story of an elite couple's fall from society in 19th century India that set the benchmark for Victorian scandals. Welcome Professor Cohen.

Benjamin Cohen:

Thank you.

Jana Cunningham:

So first, I want to say as I'm reading this book in my head, I'm picturing the Netflix series of this book because it has all the makings of like a limited series drama.

Benjamin Cohen:

Thanks. I agree. I hope that maybe someone from Netflix is listening or from Hollywood or Bollywood would be lovely.

Jana Cunningham:

Because it has all the things. It has scandal, it has elites of society, it has lies and bombshells and just anything that could make you just draw you into this series. I can just picture in my head every single series or every single episode just ending with this massive bombshell that we'll talk about in this.

Benjamin Cohen:

Okay.

Jana Cunningham:

So just as an introduction, I want to hear from you about what fascinated you enough about this scandal and this story that motivated you to write the book.

Benjamin Cohen:

I think when I first came across the story, it struck me as a very human tale of love and also of the rise and fall of this couple in colonial India. And it was also a story that historians of India had ignored or had swept under the carpet. And so I wanted to bring back the story and the voices of Mehdi Hasan and Ellen Donnelly.

Jana Cunningham:

When were you first introduced? When did you find out about this story about Mehdi and Ellen?

Benjamin Cohen:

So I was a graduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and my advisor was retiring while I was still at Madison. And he was cleaning out his office and he gave me a bundle of xeroxed pages and he said, "Oh, you're working on Hyderabad. This might be interesting to you." And I eventually read it and was introduced to the story of Mehdi and Ellen through that bundle. Those pages were the court transcript. And so from that I worked backward to understand how we got to that court case and then forward after the court case to find out what befell Mehdi and Ellen.

Jana Cunningham:

So give us just a brief kind of overview and then we'll kind of get into these more specific questions. So just to familiarize everyone with who Mehdi and Ellen are.

Benjamin Cohen:

Yeah, so this is really a love story and it's between a relatively poor North Indian Muslim man named Mehdi Hasan and an Indian born Christian woman of British heritage named Ellen Donnelly. And they met in North India in the City of Lucknow, midway through the second part of the 19th century. And they got married and then they moved south to the City of Hyderabad where Mehdi Hasan enjoyed a just skyrocketing career. And they became quite the social couples circulating both within Indian and British circles in Hyderabad. They then went off to London and met the Queen. And when they got back the people of Hyderabad, a few people were fed up with Mehdi Hasan's success and wrote a very nasty short pamphlet, unable to say anything bad about Mehdi Hasan, they went after Ellen and said quite terrible things about her. And then there was a court case and then that led to the last part of their lives.

Jana Cunningham:

So let's kind of start from the beginning. When Mehdi and Ellen got married, their marriage was seen as a bit controversial, right?

Benjamin Cohen:

Right.

Jana Cunningham:

And so why was that?

Benjamin Cohen:

If Mehdi and Ellen were here, they would say that it was a love marriage and there was nothing controversial about it at all. At this time in India, interracial marriages were not uncommon, especially amongst sort of the lower stratum of the class society, that is people who are not elites. And neither Mehdi nor Ellen were elites. And so they got married and she converted from Christianity to Islam, which again was not that uncommon and proceeded to live as husband and wife for a few years in North India before their luck changed and they moved to the South.

Jana Cunningham:

So what motivated them to move from Lucknow to Hyderabad, and how did this choice contribute to their future problems?

Benjamin Cohen:

So at the time, we have to think of India, there are really two Indias at this time, in the latter part of the 19th century. There is directly controlled India, which included Lucknow, and that is that the British, that part of India was directly administered by the British. And then about a third of the Indian subcontinent was indirectly controlled by the British. And this is where the native princes and chiefs still held some degree of sovereignty over their states. These were the princely states.

Hyderabad, where Mehdi and Ellen end up in the middle part of their lives was India's largest princely state, 82,000 square miles, which is about the same size as France, and also happens to be the same size as Utah. So it's not a small place. And the prime minister of Hyderabad was on tour in North India and was recruiting young men who had been educated in British run schools to come to the South and to help him administer Hyderabad state. It was felt that those individuals with that British inflected education would be better bureaucrats. And so Mehdi Hasan was recruited to come to the south and he and Ellen got on a train and that's what they did.

Jana Cunningham:

And you said a little bit earlier that he quickly rose through the ranks and they became part of this kind of elite society. So can you talk about his quick rise and how it may have angered a few people?

Benjamin Cohen:

Yeah, that's exactly right. He starts as a low level bureaucrat. He becomes like a local city judge and eventually works his way up to being chief justice of Hyderabad's high court. And after that goes even onto one administrative position higher. And from everything that my research showed, he was a pretty upright and competent administrator and practitioner of the law. And while he is coming up in Hyderabad circles, Ellen comes out of purdah. She had maintained the Muslim tradition in South Asia of staying in purdah. She comes out of purdah and she sort of wanders away from Islam and seems to have gone to church a few times and comes back into a Western Christian mode. And so the two of them are this power couple. He's a young Muslim man on the rise, and she's circulating now with the British women and British men who are living in Hyderabad, who are part of the British presence and Hyderabad.

And they cross-fertilize each other's social calendars. So because of his background and his position, they're invited to the Nizam of Hyderabads palace and the prime minister's palace. And they're circulating on the one hand in that Indian milieu. And because of her British heritage and sort of wandering back to Christianity, she and thus he, are invited to the British residency, which is where the local British official, the seat of power is. And they go to the club and they circulate in that circle and they rise up the social ladder. And then when he's called to the bar in London, and so they go off to Europe and it's when he gets back that the local Hyderabadies are frustrated with his success. And so they circulate the pamphlet.

Jana Cunningham:

And so then in 1892, this seven page, eight page, pamphlet gets distributed to kind of all the elites in society, titled An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad. And it's passed around. And so kind of discuss everything that it details, which is a lot, and kind of the chaos that it created for Mehdi and Ellen.

Benjamin Cohen:

Yeah. So there's one copy of this pamphlet left in the whole world, and I was very privileged to find it.

Jana Cunningham:

Oh my gosh.

Benjamin Cohen:

On the last day of a research trip overseas. And when I found it, I knew I could write the book because this was the keystone for the whole story. So the pamphlet tells or makes about five accusations. First it says that as a young woman, Ellen had been a prostitute in Lucknow. Second, it says That Mehdi and Ellen, or that she had been, after working as a sort of common prostitute, she had become a kept woman, sort of an advanced prostitute and was kept by several local men in Lucknow.

Third, the pamphlet says that Mehdi and Ellen in fact never got married. And in the court case there was some controversy about who was actually at the wedding. So that the accusation there are the insinuation is that this was an illegitimate couple and they were passing themselves off as respectable and as married.

The fourth accusation is that once they got to Hyderabad, that Mehdi Hasan no less than pimped his wife to some of the local Hyderabad officials where she bestowed her services for them. And then the last accusation was that some of the local Hyderabad officials who had also come from North India knew about this and they covered the whole thing up. And so there was a coverup as well as the accusations about what she had been and what she had done.

Jana Cunningham:

And so through your research, what are the intentions of this author or authors of this pamphlet? Was it just to take the couple down?

Benjamin Cohen:

Yeah, I think so. There is a strong sense in Hyderabad and in that region of India called the Deccan, of being a local. And being a local and being part of that local community, that sense is really strong and Hyderabad in particular. And the locals were threatened and annoyed and irritated with this North Indian, who was not a local and his white wife who showed up and then rose through the ranks. And they wanted to bring him down. And since they couldn't find anything that he had done wrong, no bribery, no corruption, seems to have been a fairly competent administrator and judge and whatnot, they went after Ellen and that was what did them in.

Jana Cunningham:

And so what do you know about the authors? Because they have some very specific detailed information that not a lot of people... I mean either if it's a rumor, if it was true, not very many people are going to know. So what do you know about who authored the pamphlet?

Benjamin Cohen:

Yeah. It was never clear throughout, over a decade of research if there was one or in fact multiple authors. And what I think happened is that a small group of people who knew Mehdi and Ellen from their Lucknow days got together in Hyderabad this time and wrote up the pamphlet and different people probably contributed different ideas or bits of information, whether true or not. And they stitched it together in a narrative and that was the pamphlet.

Jana Cunningham:

And so now Mehdi is mad obviously, and he can't figure out who has written this pamphlet. So he goes to the printer of the pamphlet and pursues legal action against him. And there's this huge drawn out, what was it, nine months?

Benjamin Cohen:

Yeah, it's a over nine month trial.

Jana Cunningham:

... of this trial. And it is full of just bombshells and witness information. So tell me, what were some of the key points and what were those most turbulent moments?

Benjamin Cohen:

I think one of the witnesses who came to Hyderabad and testified against Mehdi and Ellen was a man named James Lachlan. And Lachlan takes the stand and in a bombshell moment announces that he had in fact been married to Ellen when she was younger, in their Lucknow days, and that which no one seemed to have known in Hyderabad. And not only had he been married to Ellen, but he broke off the marriage when he caught her in an incestuous act with her father. At that point the marriage was dissolved. I think that moment was one of the bombshells. As I read through the court transcript, it was an oh my gosh moment.

Jana Cunningham:

Absolutely.

Benjamin Cohen:

I think the second moment that was more moving was at the very end of the witnesses after nine months, Ellen herself takes the stand, and she of course denied all of the accusations and talked in really loving terms about her marriage to Mehdi Hasan and what that looked like. And so it was so gratifying to hear her voice in that court case. And you can imagine that when she entered the courtroom, everyone's head turned.

Jana Cunningham:

Silence.

Benjamin Cohen:

And there must've been a lot of whispering and pointing. And then she takes the stand and the trial transcript, you really feel the moment when that happened. And I think that was for me, a really special part of that document.

Jana Cunningham:

As you're reading through the trial, it is just all about her and witness after witness just dragging her through the mud and nothing really about Mehdi.

Benjamin Cohen:

Right, right. And this was for the purposes of the pamphlet. This was about her as a way to get to him. And so you do have witnesses, not only James Lachlan, but other witnesses who testify to making love with her on the roof in Lucknow and then exchanging money and gifts for that experience.

Jana Cunningham:

This is also being recorded dail,y as in printed in the news outlets daily on the updates of the trial. So everyone's following it.

Benjamin Cohen:

Absolutely. At this time, newspapers in India and courtrooms in India were open. And so this was the sensation of the moment. And so people in not only in Hyderabad and Lucknow were following the story, but in Calcutta, which was then India's colonial capital and in London, were reading verbatim transcripts from what people said each day in the trial. And so that spread the rumors and the testimony, whether true or false, about Ellen all the way back to London and all across India.

Jana Cunningham:

And so what was the result of the trial?

Benjamin Cohen:

Well, at the end, the judge, after sitting for nine months and listening to everyone's testimony, basically said to Mehdi Hasan and the prosecution that they hadn't proved their point and he dismissed the case. But as you pointed out, with the testimony being broadcast everywhere, their reputations were ruined. So that was the end of their... any hope for them for redemption in Hyderabad.

Jana Cunningham:

So they move out of Hyderabad.

Benjamin Cohen:

Right. Within days of the trial ending, they're back on a train heading north.

Jana Cunningham:

And what becomes of them?

Benjamin Cohen:

Well, Mehdi Hasan goes back... they both go back to Lucknow where their lives as a couple had started, and Mehdi Hasan practices law for a while, and near the end of his life gets involved with the Indian National Congress. And the Congress party is a political party and a movement that eventually Mahatma Gandhi leads, and it's the party that takes India to independence. But Mehdi Hasan, earlier in his life was dead set against India's independence and thought that the Congress and the idea of getting rid of the British Empire in India was a terrible idea. And so you see him change over the course of his life to come around to being a tepid supporter of Congress. He dies relatively young and they had no children. And so Ellen is left alone in North India. She slides deeper and deeper into poverty. I found letters from her where she's trying to sell her jewelry, which is an indication of how bad things got. She has sisters who are scattered around the globe and she's trying to go and stay with them, but she's never able to. And finally she dies alone from the flu.

Jana Cunningham:

And it's so sad. But this couple who they kind of in the beginning, oh, their marriage is false and they're this and that, and they stay together this entire time.

Benjamin Cohen:

Right. It was interesting to me to think about that, that either one of them could have walked out. They could have said, "This is too much." Or if Mehdi Hasan believed the accusations, or if Ellen thought that Mehdi was the problem in the marriage, or if there had been a problem, they could have walked away. It would've been possible, but they stuck it out. And to her dying day, she signed her letters, Mrs. Mehdi Hasan, which I thought was a remarkable testament to love, which I think what this is really about.

Jana Cunningham:

Because I can't imagine having to go through that trial and just sticking it out and staying together because they faced so much, and they were like the top of society for a while. And then at the very, very bottom.

Benjamin Cohen:

Right.

Jana Cunningham:

So one question that just, I know you're a historian and it is based on fact, but I would love to know, who do you think wrote the pamphlet?

Benjamin Cohen:

I think it was a man named Vasu Devarao, who is a local Hyderabady who had friends in the circles that were opposed to Mehdi Hasan. And I think he was the most likely person to have written it, but I think it was co-authored by him and some others. But there were some newspaper accounts after the trial was settled that pointed a finger pretty clearly at Vasu Devarao.

Jana Cunningham:

So with every podcast, I end with the same question, so it can be related to the conversation we just had. It can be unrelated. What does this world know now because of your research that they didn't know before for?

Benjamin Cohen:

It's a great question and I'm happy to take a stab at answering it. I think at one level, this was a story that had been either forgotten or intentionally hidden away by those who were involved or those who were affected by the story of Mehdi and Ellen. And so it was an opportunity for me as a scholar and as a historian to give them their voice back. And I tried very hard to bring their voices through the narrative and let them speak.

At the same time, it was also, as an academic, a contribution to scholarship on race in South Asia. It's certainly a story of class and that both Mehdi and Ellen started from very humble origins, and as you said, went all the way up and then all the way back down the arc of financial success, is a story in some ways, much about gender and about what it meant to be a woman, an Indian born white woman who was fluent in Urdu, the language of Lucknow and of Hyderabad and the attack on her position as a woman and what that meant. And also, his manliness was questioned. There were a lot of questions about his virility and his manliness. So it's an intervention in gender studies in some way. And then stepping back, their lives are set in colonial South Asia, which is a story about power. And then at the end of the day, like at the beginning, this was a story about love. And so I think that it's a love story that it was worth telling.

Jana Cunningham:

I think we were talking about this before we began recording, and that this book... you're a historian and you're an academic, but this book is really targeted towards anyone because the story just goes on and on and on. But everyone can understand it. I personally loved the book and I followed it word for word. And I would encourage anyone who's interested in this scandalous love story to really pick up this book and learn about this, because it also offers, at least when I was reading it, thinking about how would this scandal play out today? What parts would happen, what would not be allowed, what would I be reading about on Twitter or X as it's called?

Benjamin Cohen:

Yeah, thank you for that. I very much wrote the book for a popular audience. I had enjoyed a lot, success as an academic historian. But this story and the story of Mehdi and Ellen seemed too good to bog down, if you will, with academic jargon and heavy theory. And I published bits of the story and other things elsewhere. But when sat I down to write, I envisioned my ideal reader. And that was not a fellow professional historian or a university professor. It was a much bigger public that I was targeting. And so if it made sense to you and anyone else who read it, then I'm really happy.

Jana Cunningham:

And it obviously feels very research academic because there's a lot of transcripts from the pamphlet from letters and from the court trial. And so I think that's one of the things that makes it so interesting, is actual fact. But it's put in a story that is just so interesting and engaging that I think anyone can really enjoy.

Benjamin Cohen:

Yeah, thank you. I traveled the world to do the research for this book, and holding the letters from Ellen in my hand, written in sort of a shaky black fountain pen ink on light blue heavy stationary was really one of the highlights of my professional research career. And so I feel really honored and privileged to have had the chance to find the story, courtesy of my advisor, and then have the opportunity to tell it and share it with the bigger public.

Jana Cunningham:

That was Benjamin Cohen, professor of history. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit humanities.utah.edu. And don't forget to subscribe to Humanities Radio.

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Last Updated: 2/13/24