Victoria and Abdul: A friendship beyond boundaries

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : The attachment between a British empress and her young and handsome munshi, or instructor, from India is the subject that cross-cultural dreams are made of — at a time when English society was synonymous with a stiff upper lip and stringent morality.

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“But munshi Abdul Karim, the young novice from Agra, and the British empress Victoria shared a relationship that went beyond the physical everyday world. She was a friend, mother and closest confidante — all three-in-one,” London-based author Shrabani Basu told IANS in an interview here.

Her new book, “Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidante”, is a non-fictional account of the intense friendship between Britain’s Queen Victoria and her Indian munshi. The book, which was brought out by Rupa in India, was released in the capital Sunday. It is divided into 15 chapters that thread Abdul’s early life from Agra, his journey to England, Victoria’s “munshimania”, the queen’s death and the munshi’s last days.

“Abdul is a little-known character from history — almost like a footnote. I had heard of him, but I did not know how important he was. I decided to go back in history to know the kind of relationship he shared with the queen for a decade. In the course of doing so, I realised how close Victoria was to India and how her views about India were influenced by him,” Basu said.

Abdul had been a gift from India to the queen to celebrate her golden jubilee in 1887. “Strikingly dressed in a scarlet tunic and an Indian turban”, the 24-year-old arrived from his home town Agra as a waiter on the royal table.

But he rose through the ranks to become the queen’s personal cook, then her munshi and then the decorated Indian secretary.

His rise ruffled feathers in the royal household. The queen’s ‘dear Abdul’ letters — which she wrote everyday — were burnt by Victoria’s children after her death. The letters were signed as “your true friend”, “your dearest friend” and even as your “dearest mother” at times.

Abdul had filled the shoes of John Brown, who had died four years earlier. The royal household was deeply suspicious of Abdul’s influence over the queen — but Victoria did not care. She handed him cottages in Windsor, Balmoral and Osborne.

“I visited Osborne House to see the Durbar Hall in 2001 to research Abdul. When he went to England, his English was not so good, but it improved rapidly,” Basu, who began working on the book in earnest in 2006, said.

“The research was exhaustive. I went to the royal archives, studied the queen’s private papers, went to Karim’s Cottage in Scotland, close to the highlands and travelled to India,” Basu said.

The queen was so fond of Abdul that she wanted to make him a knight, the writer said. “But she had to back down bowing to pressure by Lord Salisbury and made him a member of the Victoria order Commander of the Indian Empire. She insisted that he have his private carriage, be allowed to smoke and have his own billiards room.”

The empire later “portrayed Abdul Karim as a rogue”. “He had a slight shade of grey to his character in contrast to Victoria’s elegance and beauty. But I kept an open mind and found his voice from the journals that he kept,” said the author.

“He spent almost all his time with the queen. In her letters, she even advised the munshi and his wife — a childless couple — on how to conceive.” Victoria had nine children.

“The munshi in turn told her about Muharram and how the Hindus celebrated so many festivals. The queen even wrote to the viceroy asking whether the dates of some of the Hindu festivals, which coincided with the Muslim ones, could be changed. She even told the viceroy that Indians should be treated with compassion — and it all came from her munshi,” Basu said.

The idea of writing about Abdul, as Basu says in the introduction to her book, “came to her as she gazed at a portrait of young Abdul holding a book, painted by Rudolf Swaboba that hangs in the Indian corridor of Osborne House”.

“I was researching the queen’s love for curries and what unfolded before me was the man responsible for the queen’s love for curries. He stared down at me from the painting in cream, red and gold,” Basu said.

“I later learnt that the queen loved the painting so much that she copied it for herself.”

The writer is currently raising funds to install a bust of Noor Inayat Khan — the heroine of her last book “Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan” — in London.