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Her dearest friend

Sometimes, fact is stranger than fiction, like it was in the case of Queen Victoria and her Indian munshi Abdul Karim. Their unusual friendship, which blossomed despite the flutter it caused in the royal household, is the subject of London-based author-journalist Shrabani Basu’s latest offering Victoria & Abdul — The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. A reconstruction of Basu’s findings from Queen Victoria’s private papers, Victoria & Abdul was launched in town last Sunday.

A t2 chat with Basu...

How did you stumble upon this little-known fact about Queen Victoria and Abdul?

I was tracing the history of curry from the days of the Raj as part of my research for my book, titled Curry, when I discovered Abdul Karim who would cook Indian meals for Queen Victoria. Later on, when I went to Osborne House in 2001 to research the restoration of the Durbar Hall in Queen Victoria’s palace, I was a little surprised to see a portrait of Abdul on the corridor wall. I had known that he was the queen’s munshi or principal secretary, but it was very obvious that he was someone very special to her. I knew that I would like to come back and write about it someday.

I started out with a blank slate but as I started reading Victoria’s biographies I found Abdul always present in all her stories, though very negatively portrayed. So I was about to portray him in a negative light, too, till I discovered that he wasn’t a rogue as everyone made him out to be. In fact, I felt that he shared quite a tender relation with the queen.

What did you discover during your research for the book?

I started working on it in 2006. I had to seek special permission from the queen (Elizabeth II) before being allowed to go through Queen Victoria’s private papers and photographs at the Windsor Castle.

I went through her journals and the letters she had written and received from the Indian viceroys and other members of the royal household, and also newspaper clippings of the day to realise what kind of a storm Abdul had caused and how much they all hated and conspired against him. Most of the letters that the viceroys, secretariat and the lords and ladies had written to each other — all complaining about the munshi — were burnt by the queen’s sons.

So, what does your book tell us?

The story goes back and forth a bit. It begins with the queen’s death in 1901, when Abdul is hounded by the royal household and all her letters addressed to ‘my dearest friend’ are burnt. It then moves back to 1887, when Abdul arrives as a Golden Jubilee (of the queen’s ascension to the throne) present from India. We see how he is promoted from an ordinary clerk to be the queen’s secretary. He was to wait at the tables but he establishes himself as a powerful figure in the court within a year.... Abdul teaches Urdu to the queen and becomes her closest confidant. Their friendship touches various levels. Sometimes they are like mother and son, and at times like best friends, chatting and gossiping about everything. Also, they would go on weekend retreats to remote cottages in Scotland, causing quite a bit of chaos in the household.

There was a level of intimacy between the two despite the fact that they came from two different ends of the spectrum. She was the Empress of India and he was an ordinary clerk from Agra. She wrote about him to everyone and the fact that everybody was out to get him shows how close they were. Victoria & Abdul actually makes for a fun read because of the humour and sarcasm when you look at all the fights others have over them while they live in this bubble. The attitude of the establishment is not very racist, but they do make you laugh.

Were you a little biased towards Abdul?

I’ve read Victoria’s Hindustani journals where she and Abdul would write to each other for 13 years. He was teaching her Urdu, so she would write about herself and her life daily that Abdul would later read and summarise at the end. In spite of all the complaints and hatred that he invited from all quarters of the household, Abdul never wrote anything negative about the queen or the others. He was the one who brought real India to her. He wasn’t princely but an ordinary clerk from whom the queen got her insights into Indian politics, food, festivals and people. It would often prompt the queen to indulge in discussions with the Indian viceroy and take certain actions.

I also visited Abdul’s hometown Agra, where I found his grave. It’s totally neglected, no one knows about it. It’s a part of history that the royal family wanted to hide, erase all evidence and make him disappear. But that didn’t happen. I chose to tell this story because I love these characters who are forgotten by history but have little mysteries about them. I had felt the same about Noor Inayat when I wrote Spy Princess.

Didn’t the royal authorities object to the nature of the book?

They’re the ones who vetted the contents before I could come out with it. The royal family did have some minor suggestions and changes but they allowed me to interpret it my way. Those working in the royal archives have read the book and cleared it. I hope to release Victoria & Abdul in the UK in March.

Your last book Spy Princess — The Life of Noor Inayat Khan is being made into a film...

A UK-based production house called F&ME (Film & Music Entertainment) has bought the rights to the book. It’s in a pre-production stage at the moment and the screenplay is being written. It’s going to be a European film. I don’t write books to make films but if people find these stories from history interesting then why not? Let it be told. I’m also working on a memorial for Noor Inayat Khan in London.


Mohua Das

Why do scandals of the rich and famous interest us so much? Tell t2@abpmail.com

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