India came to Queen Victoria in the form of Abdul Karim: Shrabani Basu
London-based writer Shrabani Basu tells Little India how she discovered the story of Victoria and Abdul, now coming as the Judi Dench, Ali Fazal-starrer film.
The film adaption of Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria & Abdul comes at a time when Islamophobia seems to have brushed against even the most liberal minds. The film, which comes out in theatres this week, promises to be a breather from the rising intolerance fueled by religious prejudices.
Starring Judi Dench and Indian actor Ali Fazal, and directed by Stephen Frears, the film highlights a century-old story about the relationship between Queen Victoria and one of her servants, Abdul, that is as relevant in today’s conflicted world.
It all started when the London-based writer visited the Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where she saw a portrait of the story’s main character, Abdul Karim. As someone who had an inclination towards history, Basu was always interested in telling the untold stories.
“He had been painted to look like a Nawab (nobleman) and definitely did not look like a servant,” Basu told Little India. “I found his framed photograph on the wall of Victoria’s dressing room and I knew instinctively that he was someone special.”
As she read Queen Victoria’s Hindustani Journals at Windsor Castle, Basu felt the buried friendship between the Queen and Abdul came alive in front of her eyes. It was then that she knew it was a relationship that she needed to explore. It took her four years of research to put the pieces together from various sources.
Letters, pictures and Karim’s “lost diary” which was held secretly by his family for more than a century surfaced after Basu wrote the book. She then travelled to Karachi to get the documents and updated her work.
There is very little information available about the friendship. For most Indians, Abdul Karim is not a name that holds any significance. A poignant story between the Queen of England and a Muslim Indian had got lost in the pages of history. One of the main reasons for this was King Edward VII, who opposed the Queen’s closeness to her attendant.
“Every possible attempt was made to delete him (Karim) from history after Queen Victoria’s death. Her son and heir Edward VII burnt all the letters written by the Queen to him,” Basu explains.
Forming of the Friendship
Karim’s influence on Queen Victoria’s life was significant. He began to work for her at the age of 24, and moved from Agra to England. Describing him in her diary, she said, “The other, much younger, is much lighter, tall, and with a fine serious countenance. His father is a native doctor at Agra. They both kissed my feet.”
It wasn’t long for the Queen to develop a liking towards Karim. Interestingly, he was also the one who introduced curry to the Royal menu. Soon, the Queen promoted him to the position of “Munshi”.
“The fact that a young Muslim man held such a prominent place in Queen Victoria’s Court is incredible. It was the first time such a thing had happened and it has not happened since,” says Basu.
The Queen took interest in Karim’s background, culture and his ways. He told her about Muslims in India, the Hindu-Muslim riots and religious conflicts.
“She in turn wrote to the Viceroy and wanted to know what he was doing to control the riots. She also made suggestions. Of course, she was a symbolic head of state, so the administration did not really have to listen to her. Queen Victoria declared that Muslims were her most faithful subjects,” Basu added.
Bonding over Urdu and the Royal Family
With Karim as her teacher, the Queen also learnt to read and write Urdu. She never missed a lesson, whether she was on board a ship or sitting in the garden in Balmoral in summer, and by the end of her reign, she could write half a page in Urdu.
Karim was a confidante who listened to her when she complained about her children. He was there for her when she was lonely and missed her husband Albert.
In return, he told her about India. Basu says, “He told her about his home city of Agra and the romance of the Taj Mahal. He brought India alive before her eyes. She could not travel to India, so India came to her in the form of Abdul Karim.”
Royal Family’s Dislike for Karim
But their closeness was intensely disliked by the Royal family who didn’t understand how a Queen could get that close to a servant, something they feared would influence her political decisions. “She definitely became more involved with Indian politics after her time spent with Abdul Karim, but she was a titular head so unlikely that she would have had any influence on policy,” says Basu.
Over the years, there have speculations that the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim was more than friendship. Many have hinted at the possibility of romance between the two. But Basu thinks their relationship was platonic.
“I don’t think it was romantic even though it worked on several layers. She was his closest friend, his confidant. She would sign her letters to him with little crosses for kisses. She was also like a mother to him. At the same time, the physical side was important. She liked a strong six-foot tall man standing by her side and caring for her.”
An Extraordinary Bond
Basu’s book on the unlikely friendship between the Queen Victoria and her Indian-Muslim servant Abdul Karim weaves a tale that goes beyond religion, social status, and nationality.
She says: “She was the Empress of India and he was a humble clerk from Agra Jail and yet they managed to find a common space and forged a friendship that lasted for 13 years until her death.”