Bangalore connection to Queen Victoria’s controversial confidant

(Left) Author Shrabani Basu with Abdul Karim's family memberes (from right) Javed Mahmud, Begam Qamar Jahan and Naveed Hassan at an interaction with the media in Bangalore on Saturday. Photo; V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

As historian Shrabani Basu pored through the royal archives at the Windsor Castle trying to piece together the intriguing story of Queen Victoria and her controversial Indian confidant Abdul Karim, she was always acutely aware of one irreparable loss: Karim’s voice.

His letters and diaries had been destroyed as per the orders of the royal family who abhorred his proximity to the empress.

A 24-year-old Karim — a figure portrayed unsympathetically by British writers too — was sent from Agra as a “gift” to the Queen to wait at her table in 1887.

Subject of gossip

Soon, he became the subject of gossip, jealousy and suspicion in the royal household as he rose to the rank of a munshi.

Karim was eventually turned out when Victoria died.

Extraordinary events

But nothing could have prepared Ms. Basu for the extraordinary events that followed a reading of her book Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant at the Bangalore Club recently — events that ultimately led her to Karim’s extended family, which the historian had no idea existed.

Over tea and cake at the home of Begam Qamar Jahan, the only surviving offspring of Karim’s nephew Abdul Rashid (who Karim “adopted” and brought back with him to England), Ms. Basu told journalists on Saturday: “I knew someone would surface — but not so soon, and certainly not from here. Most of his family is in Pakistan.”

She described the “electrifying moment” one evening at the Bangalore Club after the reading of her book.

Begam Jahan’s son Javed Mahmud walked in, carrying a small briefcase that contained a treasure trove of his great uncle’s photographs and letters.

Begam Jahan’s father Rashid was present during every one of the raids, during which Karim’s wife is known to have begged to keep some of their possessions, she said.

“I am glad that this aspect of the British history will finally be told through the words of an Indian,” said Mr. Mahmud.

“A meticulous man”

The book has, in many ways, set right the misrepresentation of Karim as a scurrilous figure by several British chroniclers, he added.

“He was clearly a meticulous man, who wrote in his diary every single day of the 14 years he was in England.”

The diary, he added, was in the safe custody of his cousins in Karachi.

Ms. Basu says she will now visit Karachi for these new archives.

Does she wish she had made this serendipitous discovery before her book was out? “Well, look out for the next edition!”

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2020 5:02:53 PM |

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