History through a new lens
Victoria and Abdul
Author - Shrabani Basu
Publisher - The History Press, Rs 394
Friendship between the very representative of the British Empire in India and her Indian ‘servant’: Was it possible? Does it reveal something new about our history, asks SNEHA
Ever since India won its independence in 1947, we have had many accounts of the leaders and the monarchy — of Gandhi and Jinnah, Indira Gandhi, the Nehru family, the Mountbattens, etc. Several accounts of their private and personal struggles have been produced. The political turmoil surrounding that period has found many authors. So, when it comes to another such account of the Queen and her dearest Indian servant Abdul Karim, who was especially sent to England to serve the queen, one realises that there is still a lot left be discovered. Victoria and Abdul is not just another personal account set in the backdrop of the rise of the British rule in India. It is unique.
It can, however, be compared with Alex Von Tunzlemann’s Indian Summer, which tells the story of Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. Victoria and Abdul, too, is heartwarming and humourous.
It is the tale of Queen Victoria and her Munshi, Hafiz Abdul Karim. The story begins with a brief background to Abdul and Victoria. Basu, in the very beginning, creates an unbiased picture of the similarities and differences in their social, personal and family lives. Karim is the son of a medical practitioner Wazeeruddin and comes from very humble beginnings. He works for John Tyler as an assistant to the superintendent of Agra Jail. Coming from a well-educated medical background, he is intelligent and is found to be quite impressive by both Tyler and the jail authorities. So, when it comes to Victoria asking for special Indian servants to aid her in England, Tyler relies on Karim for all his choices of Indian artisan products and jewellery to be sent to the queen in England. He later promotes Karim and chooses him to be among several other male servants to be sent to the queen.
His subsequent departure to England for the queen’s golden jubilee marks the beginning of a series of charming encounters between him and Queen Victoria. Much to the horror of her English servants, the queen and the Munshi slowly become inseparable. Initially timid, Abdul slowly comes into his own and begins to impress the queen with his fluent Urdu. The queen in turn, finds Karim to be the ‘perfect Eastern’. He soon takes up the roles of a teacher and a friend to the Queen. Hereafter begin her Urdu lessons. A set of small and medium-sized journals are chosen for the lessons. She carries them with her at all times. Abdul begins by writing a line in Urdu which is then followed by its English translation. The queen finds this very easy to understand. Their interaction and mutual dependence creates the foundation for an almost familial relationship.
As the story progresses, we realise that their enchantment is mutual. Soon enough, much to the horror of everyone else, the queen bestows on Abdul the title of a Munshi. She requests for favours like building an Indian-themed durbar at Osborne and getting revenue-generating properties at Agra, for her beloved servant.
Meanwhile in India, the Company Officials begin to find it increasingly challenging to both please the queen and to oblige to her demands for the Munshi. Eventually, the queen’s English staff conspire to bring the Munshi down. They prepare a nine-point dossier on him and defame him and associating him with Raffiuddin Ahmed, a tyrant. Their efforts are thwarted time and again by the queen herself. Despite being privy to gossip, Victoria’s awareness of her surroundings and her sense of justice are both commendable. The Munshi slowly becomes irreplaceable in her life. He is given charge of cooking exotic Indian curries for her daily luncheons and dinners. He grinds his own masalas and hunts his own meats. Separate space is created for him in the kitchen of each castle.
The queen, being a mother figure to Karim, begins to pamper him like her own son. New clothing — turbans and silk gowns — are made to order so that Karim does not feel left out. He is given shelter at the frogmore cottage in Windsor, Arthur cottage in Osborne and Karim cottage in Balmoral. His family, including his wife and mother-in-law, are given royal privilege. Much to the dismay of all the staff, Karim is not bothered in the slightest by any of the problems. The queen is his only god.
Basu also reproduces some accounts of this not-very-easy-to-understand friendship from the point of view of the Western Press back then. It often had stereotypical and even amusing ideas about both — the East and the queen’s friend from the East. Description of the arrival of the Indian princes and their diamond-clad Maharanis at the golden jubilee celebrations of the queen’s reign is a case in point.
The queen’s stay at Balmoral, Aberdeenshire and the fact that the Munshi accompanied her there is also talked about. The media is shown to be quite intrigued with this Munshi-turned-son. Basu also shares several interesting eyewitness accounts of the queen leaving in carriages with her English and Indian helpers dressed in gold turbans and silken, lace-embroidered gowns. Apparently, the Florentine press went to the extent of assuming that the Munshi was a captive prince dwelling in the castle not as a servant but as a mark of the queen’s conquest over the East.
But the queen continued to make requests to her guard Henry Ponsonby to spare no expense in making sure that Abdul is never disappointed or discriminated against. On several occasions the queen signs her letters to Abdul as “your loving mother”, thereby certifying a motherly relationship with him and his family. Victoria’s fascination with her Indian Munshi soon turns into a generic interest in the governance of India. Given her closeness to Karim, reports of Hindu-muslim riots supposedly made Queen Victoria very concerned.
True to its theme, the book is well researched and holds accounts of a series of correspondences between England and India in the form of telegrams and letters sent to and by the queen. It highlights many important historical events. The dinner parties, the royal tableaux, the Scottish scenery and the friendship between the queen and her Munshi in this setting — all make for another thought-provoking version of the history of pre-Independence India.
The reviewer is a literature enthusiast
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