Shrabani Basu's book traces the interesting story of Queen Victoria's friendship with her closest confidant, Abdul Karim
Victoria, the Queen of Great Britain and all of its colonies, the undisputed monarch and Empress, suspiciously regarded her breakfast egg at Windsor Castle, and declared: “Anda thik ubla nahi hai.”
History can be unapologetically outlandish. Shrabani Basu, while researching her first book Curry, was told that Queen Victoria had once ordered that the spicy infusion be prepared every day in the royal kitchens. And that a young man named Abdul Karim had been the one to introduce her to it.
“Then I chanced upon a portrait of him in the Indian Corridor of the palace,” said Shrabani. The serious countenance of the young man, the gold-rimmed turban, the vermillion jacket and the book in his hands brimmed with gravitas — the regality was unmistakable, uncharacteristic of a servant of the Queen. “She had that done on purpose. To assert that he was not to be treated as a mere servant.”
That painting would become a person, and then a book. Victoria & Abdul – The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant, is a retelling of the remarkable relationship between the monarch and her manservant, painstakingly recreated from innumerable personal journals, meticulously-kept diaries and exhaustive letters. “It wasn't easy,” Shrabani smiled. “The Queen's handwriting is appalling.”
Abdul Karim, a clerk at the Agra Central Jail, was ‘gifted' as a waiter to Queen Victoria during her Golden Jubilee celebrations.
But what changed in between them was the very nature of their relationship, a discovery that they had more to offer each other than the stiff formalities of hierarchy.
“Abdul brought India to her, to her courtroom,” said Shrabani. The intelligent young man spoke to her about India, and she began learning Hindustani from him, penning new phrases every day in her notebook. These journals have survived, and among the others, include intriguing sentences such as “Chai Osborne mein hamesha kharab hai”, a complaint that the tea is always bad at Osborne. And “Tum Munshi ko bahut yad karoge” (You will miss the Munshi very much).
It was a period that marked the beginning of her lifelong fascination with her largest colony. That, however, did nothing to ease the oppressive administrative, social and legal restraints that were imposed in India during her reign.
Abdul was elevated to become the Munshi, the teacher. Victoria was a benevolent patron, lavishing, land, property and titles on her confidant, stopping just short of knighting him (because the Viceroy said a firm ‘No').
“The entire Court was enraged. They all complained about Abdul — the cooks, the servants, everyone. The Viceroys were livid,” she said. Her personal physician James Reid was one of those particularly incensed, trying to understand what he called ‘The Munshimania'.
Victoria died in 1901, and Abdul Karim eight years later. In the years after her death, he was unceremoniously sent back to Agra, and would face three raids by the Establishment to confiscate all the letters and postcards she'd sent him. They were all set alight in the cold air of a February morning outside his cottage in England.
Shrabani Basu did go looking for Abdul in Agra. The Munshi now rests in an abandoned grave in Agra, unadorned, save for a mausoleum arching overhead.
While it is easy — tempting almost — to shelve their story as a scandalous romantic liaison, Victoria and Abdul helps reveal the complex story of two people who could not have been more unalike, and the extraordinary friendship that grew between them. It would last 13 years, surviving the onslaught of the entire British administration, and the supposed limitations of culture. Perhaps that is why this story has persisted.