Victoria and Abdul -Book review-Shrabani Basu

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 “[2002] , 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 .

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The Raj Times – A Revisit

The Raj  Times – A Revisit

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Author ,Shashi Tharoor’s  latest addition to his list of publications ,An Era of Darkness :The British Empire in India, is a collection of an eye opening analysis of how in the garb of up lifting  an  inferior and incapable race [Indians], a multinational company [East India Company ] systematically leached a vulnerable country .

Author Shashi Tharoor needs no introduction .He is an acclaimed writer and a charismatic speaker .

Colonial history of India  is well known but the book tries to bring forth the facts that contradicts the prevalent notions associated with the history of Raj.

Author mentions that India had known unification under various rulers in the past .At the beginning of the times of Empire , India had one of the highest GDP s in the world.It had its own industry ,trade and rule of law . India was an ancient land with its own brilliant history of science ,art and culture .

But at some point ,what it lacked ,was a total loss of perspective .No wonder a handful of foreigners with a promise of improved weaponry could subjugate the continent to such a pathetic state.

Author argues  that infighting and apathy of the local rulers was cited as a cause for the downfall but its also important to remember that indigenous rulers always had a more humane approach to the ruled class.The inhuman brutality of the superior race towards the Indians for so long a time is still unmatched in history .

The modernization and industrialization that was offered to India by the foreign rulers only hastened  dis empowerment and  deindustrialization  of the economy .By the end of the British era ,the subcontinent was predominantly agrarian and eventually high taxation ,natural calamities and British apathy robbed them of their lands too.

Author mentions that its not that the British media or the conscientious of the Empire saw no wrong in the whole process but the gains were so immense that each wrong was justified for its end .

Equally surprising was that it took two hundred years for  a vision of political unity ,patriotism and nationalism to take shape as somewhere down the road with the economic depression India must have experienced a moral decompensation

Its almost 70 years since India gained Independence but we are still struggling with the degradation of our moral fabric.

Its a must read for our millennials as freedom is not something that can be frittered away

History always has relevance if we decide to pay heed to it .When we loose sight of common goals and common good ,the decay sets in .Complacency and silence paves way for a conditioning and  we take our first step towards the shackles.

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high …………….Let my country awake”  Rabindra Nath Tagore .

 

A Delve in history

A Delve in history

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Blind greed and power  has been the reason of  human miseries since time immemorial .In human history we have witnessed time and again when means to an end is ruthless  , the outcome is most unfortunate.

I am digressing a bit from my usual blog topics as I am unintentionally drawing comparisons of  the current scenarios with the happenings in the past .I am a history buff and had been a great fan of  William Dalrymple. His books prove his unadulterated love for history and India time and again .After all these years in India ,he does not betray a single emotion which states otherwise .He has contributed immensely to the art and culture scene of India .

I had the opportunity to read his latest addition to the list of  already existing best sellers , Kohinoor , The story of infamous diamond ;He undertook this project with his co author , Anita Anand .This book is about journey of one of the most famous diamonds of the world.As the diamond changed its physical location , so did the history of the subcontinent .Its the story of how a British business concern , set its foot in India as businessmen and then spread their tentacles all over India through sheer greed , cunning and conquests .

The diamond traveled its bloody journey from the eye of an idol in one of the temples of south India , through various dynasties ruling  the then India , The Tuglaq,Lodhis,Mughals Afghans and then the last reigning king of Punjab ,Raja  Ranjit Singh.

When East India company first came to India ,India’s  GDP was almost 23% of the  world GDP .Diamonds were not preferred as precious stones but Ruby and other precious stones were. Till the  18th century , India was one of the very few countries where  most of the world diamonds came from.Various myths associated with Kohinoor was cleared along the way as till  date most of the references  are not very authentic .

The journey of the diamond ends with the annexation of Kingdom of Punjab , from its ten  year old king , Raja Duleep Singh and the ultimate destination of the diamond , in the museum of Tower of London . Like most of his books it’s an unstoppable read with multiple interesting anecdotes .

Human history is unfair and it’s not a mythological journey where good always wins over the bad .But when we step into the web with our eyes and ears open that’s when the feeling of the helplessness creeps in .