Author and journalist Shrabani Basu knew for a fact that Queen Victoria loved her curries and that she had some Indian servants. But it was on a visit to Osborne House, one of Her Majesty’s residences where she first saw a photo of Abdul Karim in the Darbar room. And that piqued her curiosity, “He was painted in Red, Gold, and Cream and was holding a book in his hand. He looked more like a nawab than a servant.”
Several years later, this chance discovery led to the book Victoria and Abdul, a book that fondly looks back at the relationship between the aging Queen and her attendant Abdul Karim, a 24-year-old clerk from Agra who soon became her closest confidante. And of course, he made the best curries. It took Basu four years to research the story. She travelled from Balmoral in Scotland to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and read the Queen’s journals in Windsor Castle. The story took her to Agra in India and Karachi in Pakistan. She found Karim’s lost diary in Pakistan and that completed the story.
“Victoria was drawn to the young man with the ‘fine, serious countenance’ as she puts it, right from the start. She chose him to teach her Urdu. She wrote to her daughter that he was a ‘great comfort to her.’”
“Victoria was drawn to the young man with the ‘fine, serious countenance’ as she puts it, right from the start. She chose him to teach her Urdu. She wrote to her daughter that he was a ‘great comfort to her.’” There was something about him that made the Queen feel safe and reassured and cared for. He would tell her about his country, his religion and the customs. She would tell him about her troublesome children. Somewhere they formed a bond.” she says.
Based in London, Basu is also the author of Curry, a book which expounds on how the humble dish became the nation’s favourite; and Spy Princess, the fascinating story of Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who became a secret agent during the Second World War. An alumnus of Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College, the author’s work is always meticulous, combining her journalism with a great love for History. So, when she couldn’t trace Karim’s descendants for the first edition, in spite of finding his grave, she felt she needed to know more.
She adds, “I had enough original material to publish the first edition, so I decided to do it. I knew that someone would contact me when it was published. And I was right. I was contacted within days of the publication. The family had been keeping a low profile as they told me they were ashamed of him since he had been painted in western accounts as a manipulative rogue.
When they read my book and saw the research I had done, they were delighted. They contacted me and told me about the diary in Karachi. Getting Abdul Karim’s own voice was wonderful.
The Household had tried to suppress the publication of the memoirs. I was finally able to tell his side of the story. The family did not even know where Karim had been buried. It was very satisfying being able to unite them with their ancestor. Now they look after the grave, which gets many visitors.”
The royal household was intensely disapproving of this friendship and Abdul Karim's growing ranks (he was soon promoted to a Munshi by the Queen), but for 13 years until her death, the queen would just not have any of it.
“Karim did not know the full extent of how they were spying on him and preparing a dossier against him, but he was aware of their hostility towards him.”
Basu informs, “It lasted as long as the Queen lived because she supported him and would not hear anything negative about him. Karim did not know the full extent of how they were spying on him and preparing a dossier against him, but he was aware of their hostility towards him. He refers to them in his diary and in the Queen’s Hindustani Journals but always praises the Queen for standing by him.”
In fact, on her death, Victoria’s son, King Edward VII was absolutely insistent on destroying every possible trace of their friendship. Not only was Karim immediately banished to India, the new Monarch was paranoid about any details of the relationship getting out to the public. He was also apprehensive that the Queen’s letters to Karim would contain references to him, as his mother often chastised him in her letters and asked him to be courteous to the Munshi. She often copied the letters to Karim, so it was doubly humiliating for Bertie.
The book, of course, was recently adapted for the big screens, with Judi Dench playing Queen Victoria no less. Basu says it was wonderful seeing the story come alive on-screen in the sumptuous surroundings of Osborne House and in Scotland. But, were there any changes made to the story for the adaptation?
“It is a feature film, so there are always creative licenses. A film is always different from the book as it has to tell the story in a limited time space.”
“The film is shot on a grand scale and the costumes are fabulous. Every care was taken to get the Indian costumes right to the last detail. Judi Dench gave the performance of a lifetime as the aging Queen bringing out all the nuances of her character.
It is a feature film, so there are always creative licenses. A film is always different from the book as it has to tell the story in a limited time space. It captures about 80 percent of the major plot points and all the drama. It is funny and sad at the same time and people have loved it.”
In a way, the friendship between the Queen and Abdul Karim transcended all race, class and caste. In modern-day, where Xenophobia and racism are so pervasive especially in developed countries, what does the author want people to take away from her book?
Sh says, “That we can bond as human beings even we come from different worlds. We can be friends despite different religions, class, caste, language, and in this case, even age.”
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