While reading this book , I had often wondered how this interesting and enigmatic association of a British Monarch and her Indian teacher “Munshi ” had escaped the keen eyes of historians. In Hindi , the word “Munshi ” is more traditionally used for accountants of small businesses but this “Munshi” was definitely much more than to Queen
Much has been written about the times of Raj but this unconventional relationship was partly concealed as systematically the evidences were purged after Queen’s death .The teacher and his family were driven away from their homes .All the correspondences were burnt or confiscated and Munshi’s family was hounded upto India to wipe away any residual documents .It was as if the indulgence that the Queen was allowed in her later years was a matter of great shame to the Monarchy and earlier it was forgotten the better it was. Further, the descendants of Abdul Karim had left the subcontinent after partition of India and had settled in Karachi [Pakistan], which further helped to fade away the memories .Post Indian independence ,many historical buildings such as the tomb of Abdul Karim after his death had also fallen into neglect . Fortunately , as the Queen’s journal were in Urdu [Persian script]and they were left alone by foreign historians ,it helped the author a great deal to analyze this relationship .
This book’s claim to fame was its adaptation into a major motion picture [Stephen Frier’s film by the same name ] seven years after it was written .It was initially written in 2010 by Shrabani Basu ,who after majoring in History from St Stephens College in New Delhi trained as a journalist and later joined the London Office of Ananda Bazar Patrika as their correspondent The book was republished one more time seven years later. She has many other books to her credit such as For King and another country ; Indian Soldiers on western Front ;Spy Princess-Life of Noor Inayat khan .The book ,Victoria and Abdul ,was a toil of five years and travel of three countries .
Queen Victoria , was the Queen of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 until her death in 1901 . In 1876 , she adopted the additional title of” Empress Of India .Tall handsome ,24 years old , Abdul Karim was presented to the Queen at her Golden Jubilee celebration with the other Indian servants. Abdul Karim worked as an assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail and his father was a physician of traditional medicine .Though he was supposed to be with the Queen for a year but an incredible relationship happened and lasted more than a decade .
Though Queen was titular head ,but had always taken a keen interest in affairs of her Monarchy .She had strategically arranged the marriages of her children all throughout the Europe and was later known as the “Grandmother Of Europe and always had some kind of political influence in the country . But after the deaths of her husband , Albert, and later her Scottish gillie , John Brown , whose ring she took to her grave, she had an enormous emotional void in her life .None of the trappings of Monarchy or the presence of her big family could fill it .
Just at that point Abdul Karim entered Victoria’s life and he had all the qualities that Queen admired .He was soft spoken , well mannered ,gentle ,good looking ,proud of his heritage, learned and aware of current affairs .When Queen met Karim she was in her geriatric age group but that did not deter the Queen from forging a human relationship which even to the insiders including her own children was of the most bizarre kind .
Victoria had been brought up as an epitome of morality and the relationship was platonic to its core but it was a combination of various relationship in one . She was a mother, well wisher, guide ,employer and he was a companion ,teacher ,adviser to her .
Queen ,though did not travel to India but was always very inquisitive about this colony ,” The Jewel of the Empire “.Soon after her association with Abdul ,his influence on her was complete . Not only did she start learning the language but Indian curries were being cooked and attires were being worn in the household .Interestingly , the journals she kept of her lessons were of profound importance as they played a great role to unearth this beautiful relationship.
As far as Victoria was concerned, he was a part of her household and expected other members to accept Abdul .But the schism was much wider than the Queen imagined . Abdul lasted for almost ten years but it was almost a daily struggle for Queen to legitimize his position in the household as for rest of them, he was just a part of the” Black Brigade”
In the book “White Mughals “ , written by Dalrymple ,we have witnessed that in early 18 th and early 19 th century, 1 in 3 British men in India were married to Indian women but as British supremacy got established, it was expected that the relations should be of ruler and ruled .We have to recall that post 1857, subcontinent had officially declared its War of Independence and though it was overtly quenched , covertly the milieu was most inappropriate for a relationship between a White Monarch and her Brown servant .
From times immemorial , unconventional human relationships had been under persecution .These relationships are perfectly legal but are not allowed to be preserved as some unspoken rules emerge from some corner . Rules of convention , Rules of race , Rules of religion ,Rules of color , Rules of hierarchy and God knows many other unheard of rules But the bonds of these relationships are much stronger and they resurface time and again with their whiff of eternity .
2 thoughts on “Victoria and Abdul -Book review-Shrabani Basu”
Fascinating review that gives a reader a rare insight into the British monarchy and the racial bias entrenched in the British hierarchy. Such a detailed review of an interesting tale keeps us glued and wanting to read the original. Great review indie.
LikeLiked by 1 person