On 26 April 1895, the trial of Oscar Wilde began at the Old Bailey. He was there because he had attempted to prosecute the marquess of Queensberry for libel, an action which had led to unforeseen revelations about Wilde’s sexuality (Queensberry, whose command of spelling didn’t equal Wilde’s, had called Wilde a “somdomite” [sic]), forced him to abandon his suit, and himself face trial for gross indecency and homosexuality. If Wilde had read of a trial which had happened in far-off India two years earlier, he might have thought twice about suing Queensberry. The trial in question, here ably presented and carefully analyzed by Benjamin Cohen, was, like Wilde’s, a long, salacious saga of sex and lies. There was, of course, no videotape, but a nude photograph which no one seemed able to produce was verbally offered in evidence. Like Queensberry, the defendant was acquitted and, like Wilde’s, the plaintiff’s life, as well as that of his wife, completely ruined, although neither ended up doing two years’ hard labor. The Hyderabad incident serves, particularly in retrospect, to reveal some of the British Raj’s nastier sides, involving questions of race, gender, bourgeois morality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, religion.
The central figures in this book are Mehdi Hassan, an upcoming lawyer and politician, and his wife Ellen Donnelly. Mehdi was a handsome Muslim nobleman who had been educated at Canning College in Lucknow; he acquired legal expertise in land law and slowly advanced up the legal ladder. Ellen, born in India, was an attractive Irish girl from a poor lower middle-class family. They met in Lucknow and got married in 1873; Ellen converted to Islam, and, for a while, segregated herself, a custom known as purdah, which she later abandoned with Mehdi’s approval, and dressed in both Indian and European clothes. Because of Mehdi’s acquaintance with Salar Jung I, then Prime Minister of the princely state of Hyderabad, he was offered a position in the Hyderabad civil service, and some years after their marriage (1883) the couple moved to Hyderabad, where Mehdi eventually rose to become Home Secretary of Hyderabad State under Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan. This was a prestigious position indeed, ranking just below that of the Prime Minister.
Mehdi thus became intimately involved in the politics of Hyderabad, which would make him some powerful enemies as well as friends, and there were also some people who were first friends then enemies. When the anonymous pamphlet appeared, entitled An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad, the writer suggested that not only was Ellen promiscuous (and always had been), but that she was not in fact married to Mehdi and that her conversion to Islam was not genuine. Several people claiming to have had sex with Ellen testified on behalf of the defence, and others either concocted or reported gossip about her family, its origins, and the character of her father in particular.
Mehdi, like Oscar Wilde after him, immediately sued the wrong person.
Without going too much into the details of the story, which are fascinatingly related by Cohen, the book reveals some facts about the Raj and indeed about colonial Victorian society itself which readers may not have thought about. One of the more interesting strands for this reviewer was the notion that almost the worst thing that Mehdi and Ellen could be accused of was getting presented to Queen Victoria at a drawing-room by Morton Frewen, the assistant to the Prime Minister of Hyderabad, when they were in England during the course of a business trip in 1888 which took them to various countries in Europe. Mehdi described the experience in near-worshipful terms about the Queen, “a lady whom I was taught to love and about whose virtues, good nature and splendid appearance… I had heard so many stories in my childhood.” That wasn’t all; Mehdi recorded that “I felt as if I were in the heaven of a dream… tears of joy and love came to my eyes.”
In England itself, aspersions were already being cast on Ellen; Mortimer Durand, head of the Political Department of the Government of India, wrote that “very unpleasant rumours” were circulating in England, namely that Mehdi and Ellen weren’t married and that she was “merely living with him as his mistress.” Durand was assured by Prime Minister Asman Jah that Mehdi and Ellen were, in fact, married, but the cat slowly emerged from the bag over the next few years, until in 1893 the scurrilous pamphlet appeared. During this time Mehdi arose to his pinnacle of power in Hyderabad, collecting friends and enemies as he went.
Relationships between Indians and Europeans were not unknown by the time Mehdi and Ellen came on the scene, but problems often arose involving questions of social mobility and sexual morality, especially for women. Even Ellen’s actual ethnicity was questioned at one point; was she European or Eurasian, or did she behave as a Muslim woman should behave? From political and social prominence Ellen and Mehdi went to notoriety; Mehdi was even accused of prostituting his wife out to other men for political or social gain, and Ellen herself, it was said, had been a prostitute before she had even met her so-called husband.
Mehdi, like Oscar Wilde after him, immediately sued the wrong person, in this case the printer, one SM Mehta, who was duly tried with a British magistrate, OV Bosanquet, presiding. Cohen gives us a detailed description of the trial from both sides, and the story is both riveting and sad. Witnesses for the prosecution lied through their teeth, powerful people avoided giving testimony, and the order of the day was betrayal. Bosanquet, who should have been impartial, even wrote a memoir after Mehta’s not guilty verdict, stating that Ellen, even though she was married, was “a woman of absolutely no morals, having descended even into incest” (with her father) before meeting Mehdi, who had covered up her past and therefore had committed a “gross outrage” allowing her to be presented to Queen Victoria.
In some sense at least, here “amor vincit omnia”.
Few people come off well in this saga; as Cohen tells us, Ellen “may well have shared her bed with one or more lovers,” and Mehdi’s ambition as well as his rather arrogant character made him an easy target, especially for those in the Hyderabad government who felt that they were entitled to more than they had got from their own hard work.
The object of the pamphlet and the accusations in court was not so much to impugn Ellen’s reputation, as she did not matter that much, being a woman of “dubious” background, but to destroy Mehdi’s career. Mehdi was successful, it was intimated, because he pimped Ellen out to high-ranking politicians and ministers in the Nizam’s court; they even included in their list the name of a deceased Prime Minister, the younger Salar Jang, as he could not, of course, defend either Ellen or himself. Mehdi was also an outsider, which may have aroused the jealousy of local people of influence, and Ellen was a poor British girl.
On the positive side, at least from a reader’s point of view, is the love and loyalty the couple showed to each other; to the end Ellen, who lived barely above the poverty line after the trial, referred to herself as “Mrs Mehdi Hassan”, and after her husband’s death in 1904 continually emphasized how loyal he had been, even writing to the Nizam himself to obtain some back compensation based on his services. Some loyal friends helped her out, but she died in poverty (1912), although by that time the Hyderabad newspapers had somewhat rehabilitated her husband’s name in his obituary.
It’s still not known who wrote An Appeal, although Cohen makes some speculations on this subject at the end of the book. His research is very thorough, drawing as it does on personal letters, courtroom transcripts, secret correspondence and newspaper reports; Cohen brings the people to life as they lie, connive, exaggerate and, occasionally, try to tell the truth.
Some of the illustrations, however, are far too small. Group photographs are included in which certain people are named, but one needs a magnifying glass to actually see them. They are at least included in the text, not in a central portfolio, and thus become an integral part of the narrative. That’s why they should have been larger: knowing what people looked like always adds an extra dimension to a story.
The love between Mehdi and Ellen, their support for each other and the tragic aftermath of the episode all conspire to engage our sympathy and to look again at the social underbelly of the British Raj as well as the politics of a powerful Indian princely state. This isn’t just a salacious sex story, but a revelation of a society plagued by moral ambiguity and political chicanery. Cohen’s book is a wonderful yet rather sad book, yet somehow hopeful, because in some sense at least, here “amor vincit omnia”.