Untold lives blog

08 December 2020

Mermanjan’s diary

After writing on this blog about Mermanjan, an Afghan noblewoman who had run away from Afghanistan to India in 1849, I studied her diary which was donated to the India Office Private Papers by my grandmother.

The diary is dated from 1868 to 1875, from the time when Mermanjan was in her mid-30s, married for five years to her second husband, an Irish doctor called Francis O’Kearney and living in Mahabaleshwar near Bombay.  Her first husband and great love of her life, Captain Thomas Maughan, had died suddenly seven years earlier.

Unfortunately Mermanjan didn’t write much about her inner thoughts or feelings in the diary, only writing short and factual entries about her daily life immersed in British colonial society.  Her diary entries revolved around her pets - dogs, cats, turkeys, fowls and chickens, plus their eggs and hatchlings; visits for tea from couples with European names (Captain and Mrs Boyd seem to be a favourite); walks down the hill; the weather; town gossip about births, marriages and deaths; social events such as croquet parties, shooting, trips to the theatre; complaints about her ‘bad’ butler or cook who ran away; and lists of expenses.  The diary also contains newspaper cuttings, excerpts from letters and essays, and pencil drawings.

There are some glimpses into the difficulties of her private life.  She mentions twice that her husband Frank was unkind to her when she was sick, not checking up on her all night to even offer her a cup of tea, and offering her some pills that made her very sick, saying he was ‘very unkind to me, never spoken one kind word to me’.

One pencil sketch shows the back of a woman in Victorian dress making tea, which might be a self-portrait from a mirror.

Sketch of woman making teaSketch of a woman making tea Mss Eur E304/4 (Copyright - heirs of Mermanjan O’Kearney)

Nearer the end of the diary she includes a sketch of a girl on a horse, which might be of herself when she ran away from Afghanistan to India to join her first husband. 

Sketch of a girl on a horseSketch of a girl on a horse Mss Eur E304/4 (Copyright - heirs of Mermanjan O’Kearney)

She also writes a word-for-word copy of the account of her late husband Thomas Maughan, telling how he met her in Afghanistan while serving under the flying column of Sir Walter Gilbert, maybe to reaffirm his version of the story.

Although the diary does not reveal great insights into her personal life, it reaffirms Mermanjan’s story of meeting her great love Thomas Maughan in 1849, and shows she was obviously not happy in her second marriage and distracted herself with various pets and social engagements in the present and happy memories from the past.  It is highly unusual to have written accounts from Muslim women from the time, especially in English, although admittedly she was fully integrated into British colonial life.  She is guarded about her innermost thoughts, but there are some glimpses into her difficulties behind the façade of social events.  Her diary and drawings probably provided temporary relief and a source of comfort for her in this unhappy and difficult period of her life.

Felicia Line
Independent researcher

Further reading:
Mss Eur E304/4 Diary kept by Mermanjan, 1 Feb 1868 - 10 Jan 1875 

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