Basu is a London-based author, journalist and correspondent for two Calcutta newspapers: The Ananda Bazar Patrika and The Telegraph. She has authored “Curry: The Story of the Nation’s Favourite Dish” and the much acclaimed biography, “SpyPrincess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan.”
“Victoria & Abdul,” her latest work, took three years of intense research work and travels to Balmoral, Agra, Isle of Wight and Windsor. It has received commendable reviews from historians and general readers in the English-speaking world. Basu was recently in Karachi — as a guest of Oxford University Press — where OUP is planning to publish a Pakistan edition and a possible Urdu translation. A translation into Marathi and Indonesian bhasa has been commissioned. Basu, it is rumored, has even received requests from filmmakers for permission to turn this story of Empire and intrigue into a blockbuster film. However, she declined to confirm if she has agreed to any such request.
The 224-page book describes how a very special relationship develops between the ruler and the ruled. “Victoria & Abdul” is not only an interesting description of a ruler’s intimate relationship with her servant, but it also reveals some of the lesser-known secrets of the rules of the Raj.
The blurb of the book describes Queen Victoria’s Indian confidant: “The tall, handsome Abdul Karim was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables during the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. An assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail, he suddenly rose to become a personal attendant to the Empress of India.”
Within a year, Abdul Karim was established as a powerful figure at court, becoming the Queen’s teacher, or Munshi, and instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs. Devastated by the death of John Brown, her Scottish gillie, the Queen had at last found his replacement. But, her intense controversial relationship with the Munshi led to a near-revolt in the royal household.”
Not many narratives since Shakespeare can lay claim to such a rich cast: Victoria Queen of England & Empress of India, the Royal Consort Prince Albert, princesses, viceroys, secretaries of state, prime ministers, maharajas, maharanis, nabobs, lords, ladies and not forgetting the shadow-like characters known as royal attendants. However, like in all narratives in “Victoria & Abdul,” a dark horse overshadows all the other characters. And, like a Shakespearean tragedy, the real-life story of this intense relationship — which some have dubbed as the ‘romance’ of the Empire — ends on a sad note.
Like Queen Victoria’s bumpy private life, the affairs of the state did not offer her a smooth ride either. Queen Victoria (1837-1901) oversaw England at the height of its overseas power. ‘British Empire was established in her reign and it reached its greatest expanse under her.’
Her remarkable and longest reign was marked by demands for electoral reforms and universal male suffrage. The Queen dealt harshly with radical reformers that had taken over this movement. Another call for social reform was the Anti Corn Law League that called for free trade that the administration agreed to in 1846. Victoria’s reign also saw England becoming involved in the Crimean War (1854), which was notable only in that it provided evidence of military incompetence and the material for the poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred Tennyson. However, out of this misadventure came the establishment of more humane nursing practices under the influence of , the courageous “Lady with the Lamp.”
Hot on the heels of the Crimean War brewed trouble in India among the soldiers — the so-called “Sepoy Mutiny” also known as Movement for Independence. India, until then, had been administered by the East India Company with government cooperation. After the “sepoy trouble” was put down, the administration of India was taken over by the government of Britain. “Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, was the main backer of the 1851 Great Exhibition. This was the first ‘world’s fair,’ with exhibits from most of the world’s nations. The exhibition was held in Hyde Park, and the showpiece was the Crystal Palace, a prefabricated steel and glass structure like a gigantic greenhouse, which housed the exhibits.”
The Queen’s marriage to Francis Albert Charles Augustus Emmanuel a.k.a Prince Albert, did bring her joy and nine children. The young Queen expressed her preference for Albert over other suitors: “[Albert] is extremely handsome; his hair is about the same colour as mine; his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful.”
Tragically, however, Prince Albert died at the early age of 42, which made the Queen plunge into a deep mourning that lasted for the rest of her life. Luckily, she was able to find solace in Abdul Karim.
Mohammed Abdul Karim appears to have the most modest of backgrounds in the “Dramatis Personae.” Son of a hakeem (alternative medicine practitioner) at Agra Central Jail, he received formal education, became a Hafize Qur’an and was appointed a clerk’s assistant. So far, nothing appears extraordinary in the career of this very ordinary young man. But, it was not at their first meeting during the Jubilee celebrations when the tall, dark and handsome Abdul Karim had impressed the Queen.
The Golden Jubilee celebrations of her reign marked a turning point in Queen Victoria’s lonely life. “The warmth of her people had cheered her, but they had gone home to their loved ones and she had returned alone to her Castle, her maids and her Household. She missed her husband and her Highland servant, John Brown, both men the Queen had loved and buried.”
The next morning, the Queen was presented with her Jubilee presents from India from Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh — a pair of gold bracelets (kadas), which were presented to the Queen by Agra Central Jail superintendent John Tyler. The presents were suggested, prepared and selected by Abdul Karim, and the Queen had expressed her delight at the gift.
Basu describes their first meeting as follows: “The Queen was delighted . . . Both servants approached her slowly, their eyes lowered to the gaze at the ground as they had been instructed to do. Then with a deep bow, Karim and Buksh bent down to kiss the Queen’s feet. As he rose, young Karim’s dark eyes fleetingly met the Queen’s gaze. Suddenly Victoria no longer felt tired.”
The presence of Jubilee presents was not taken lightly by the Household staff. Both the men were to be the Royal khidmatgars and would receive £60 a year. Members of the staff were also instructed “not to offer spirits to the two Indians.” The Indians were also allowed to cook their own meals in accordance with their own beliefs. An example of the much talked about inter-faith understanding of today! Sir Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s private Secretary, had hoped that things “would not get any more complicated.” But, it would not be so.
Tyler was impressed by Abdul Karim’s intellect and personality. So, when the opportunity came to suggest names of Indian khidmatgars to wait at the Maharajas and Maharanis at the Jubilee celebrations in London, Abdul Karim was a natural choice.
Abdul Karim’s close relationship soon became the cause of envy for others. “To the Royal Household, the Queen’s attitude…began to gradually remind them of her relationship with John Brown” who become a close friend of the Queen and Prince Albert.”
Basu devotes an entire chapter on the love, awe, admiration and suspicion of Queen Victoria’s Indian manservant, aptly called Munshimania:
“The Queen’s diamond Jubilee was fast approaching. It would be ten years since Abdul Karim had joined her Court. The Queen remembered the first day he had presented himself, a shy youth of twenty-three with a serious expression on his face. He had grown now portly, the wealth and fine living in the Queen’s palaces adding to his girth. The Queen gazed at the photograph of Karim hanging in her Dressing Room in Osborne House…it hung just below a photograph of John Brown and was placed near her dressing table. Above her bed was a photograph of her beloved Albert. The Queen had chosen to be surrounded by the memories of the men who had been closest to her in life.”
Yet, intrigue, conspiracies and jealousy of royal proportions were rife behind the scene. In the Queen, Abdul Karim had found a friend in a very high place, but those around him did not share Victoria’s feelings. The 1857 “mutiny” had not unnerved the Queen, but her own Household had almost revolted at the rapid ‘promotions’ Abdul Karim had achieved — undeservedly granted as some saw — in a comparatively short time.
The Queen’s idea of a “glorious Diamond Jubilee celebration” was rather disturbed by the trouble being cooked up in her kitchen. She wanted to knight Abdul Karim to honor him with Member of the Royal Victorian Order, but her suggestion was once again opposed by the India Office and her own Household.
All this left the Queen “feeling very tired and somewhat depressed.” It was not for the first time that the Household had stood against a “foreigner” as Scottish John Brown had met a similar fate. They were suspicious of Abdul Karim’s extraordinary “influence over the Queen,” but as others have noted, he was no Rasputin.
Abdul Karim appears a simple person who through his hard work, devotion, intelligence and dedication caught the lonely Queen’s attention. His good luck and his good looks seem to have played a major role in his meteoric rise and tragic fall from grace when he returned to Agra to spend his last days in affluence. Some eight years after his return to India, Abdul Karim died at the age of 46. Was he too tired of life and depressed? We will never know.
“Victoria & Abdul” is a well-written and well-researched work of historical proportions. It’s as racy as a travelogue, as gripping as a thriller and as well documented as a reference book. However, one feels that all has yet to be revealed of this intimate royal-commoner relationship. Or, perhaps like the life and death of and , we’ll never get to know the whole truth.