Just finished reading a fascinating book called "Victoria and Abdul" by Shrabani Basu. This is the story of Queen Victoria, Empress of India who was sent two Indian servants from Agra for her Golden Jubilee. One was a man called Abdul Karim, a Muslim clerk who started out waiting at table in the palace but was very quickly promoted to Munshi or teacher. This young man of 24 taught Victoria, 68 Urdu. For 13 years Victoria took lessons from the Munshi and by the end was able to read and write in Urdu. Victoria's notebooks survive with phrases like " You may go home if you like", and "the egg is not boiled enough" but also other more personal phrases like " you will miss the Munshi" and "hold me tight". She enjoyed his company thoroughly and came to rely on him and through him learnt so much about India, which was so dear to her, but where sadly, she would never go. She conferred privileges and awards on him and made sure he and his family would be comfortable even after her death. She commissioned his portrait which hangs in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, one of the Queen's homes.
Abdul Karim as a young man by Rudolph Swoboda 1859-1914- Osborne House
What makes this book remarkable is that the author took a lot of trouble to uncover documents and correspondence as evidence of this bond. While the book could have benefited from some editing it is a remarkable true story of a significant relationship which for obvious reasons was very much overlooked and ignored. Victoria comes over as an enlightened and very able woman, prone to some romanticism, but blind to any prejudice. The same cannot be said of the people around her who at some point became jealous of the Munshi and wanted to ascribe to him sins and misbehaviour of which he was completely and utterly exonerated. Not only that but after her death the family very viciously demanded all the letters she had written to him and publicly burnt them.
In this age of mistrust and religious fanaticism as well as persecution it is so heartening to see that there were people on this earth all those years ago, indeed someone as famous as Queen Victoria, who knew the value of friendship irrespective of creed, colour, or social class and that she was able, despite considerable opposition, to stay true to her beliefs throughout her long and fruitful reign. The book is being made into a motion picture and I cant wait to see it adapted to the screen by Stephen Frears with the amazing Dame Judi Dench as Victoria and Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim.
Karim died in Agra at the age of 46, eight years after Viictoria’s death in 1901.