Issue :   
December 2017 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         December 2017 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:Dec' 2017


Queen Victoria's amazing bond !

Purnima Sharma

Shrabani Basu It's an amazing story -- about the beautiful bond shared between an Empress -- Queen Victoria -- and a commoner (to use a politically incorrect word), servant rather -- Abdul Karim -- that has been explored by Shrabani Basu in her book, "Victoria and Abdul". It was in 1887, on the occasion of the monarch's golden jubilee, that 24-year-old Abdul arrived from India to wait on Victoria and present her with a ceremonial coin. And no sooner does Victoria set her eyes on him that their unusual story begins. And this is also being told in an eponymous film...
The Calcutta-born Basu, who grew up in Dacca, Kathmandu and Delhi, has now been living in London for the last almost 30 years. A journalist with some of the major Indian papers, Basu is happy with the interest that the book has garnered.
What makes her happy is that her work has not just resurrected Abdul Karim to his rightful position -- despite efforts by members of the then Royal Household to have him 'erased' from certain pages of history -- but also brought him closer his descendants who had, all this while, not been happy with their association with him.
"They now know the real truth," says the author who had to put in considerable effort to locate his final resting place lying in a neglected corner of an Agra graveyard. "His family now knows where he is buried and are looking after his grave," Let's hear more about Victoria and Abdul from Shrabani Basu...

How did the book happen? When did you first hear of Abdul Karim and his special bond with Queen Victoria, that strangely has been brushed under the carpet by British historians?

Cover page of Victoria & Abdul I knew from researching an earlier book that Queen Victoria enjoyed curries and that she had some Indian servants. It was on a visit to Osborne House, Queen Victoria's holiday home on the Isle of Wight, that I saw a portrait of Abdul Karim in the Indian Corridor. He was painted in rich colours, wearing red and gold and cream and holding a book. It struck me that he had not been painted to look like a servant. It aroused my curiosity.
In Queen Victoria's dressing room there was a photograph of him placed just below that of John Brown -- the Queen's Scottish servant. It convinced me that Abdul was someone special and I wanted to know more. It took four years to research the story. I read Queen Victoria's Journals in Windsor Castle, I read the Hindustani Journals (these are the lessons she took in Urdu from Abdul Karim) and the whole relationship slowly started coming alive in front of my eyes. I traced Abdul Karim's descendants and found his lost diary in Karachi, Pakistan. I could then put the whole story together.
British historians had never accessed the Hindustani journals. Their accounts of Karim were based on the reactions of the Royal Household who were racist and hated Karim. So it was a one-sided view. Her son and heir, Edward VII, burnt the letters written by Queen Victoria, so a lot of the material was destroyed. I had to reconstruct the story. What is the British reaction to Abdul Karim now? And about Queen Victoria's special love for Urdu and India? There is a lot of interest in Abdul now. The book was on the Sunday Times bestseller list, so people want to know the real story. Victoria's love for and curiosity about India was genuine. She started taking a keen interest in the political situation in India and built the Durbar Room in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The room attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, and after the film, they expect even more tourists to visit the place.
What has been the most fascinating part of your research?
Uncovering the story of Abdul Karim. First finding his grave and then his descendants. No one had heard of him in Agra. It took me three days to find his grave and then his house. I did this with the help of two local journalists. And finally, finding his lost journal in Karachi in Pakistan. Also, reading Queen Victoria's Hindustani Journals and seeing her last entry in Urdu, written two months before her death.
Was getting access to the old memoirs and diaries of the characters difficult?
I had to get permission to access the Royal Archives in Windsor. I had to contact the families to read the private diaries of Sir James Reid, Queen Victoria's personal physician. Abdul Karim's descendants showed me his diary. It was a lot of hard work tracing the material, getting permission, travelling to the places. It took me four years.
What was the reaction of the royal family and the library to your request about reading the Queen's personal diaries. Have the attitudes towards India changed?
They were fine about it. Historians often request access. They are quite proud that Victoria learnt Urdu and the Journals have been put on display for a limited time at Osborne House.

Victoria and Abdul

Tell us about Abdul Karim and his relationship with the Queen. Any records about how he was treated after her death?

It was a relationship that worked at several levels. He was at once a close friend and confidant as well as a son to her. The physical side was also important. Queen Victoria liked a strong, tall man standing by her side, taking care of her and treating her like a woman and not just as the Queen. It was the same with John Brown, her Scottish ghillie who drew her out of isolation after the death of her husband. After Brown's death in 1883, Abdul filled this gap.

Do you think they could have been romantically involved?

No. It is a far more layered relationship. Abdul was at once her closest friend and confidant. He was also like a son to her. The physical side was also important as, as I said earlier, Victoria liked a tall, strong man by her side and taking care of her. In this respect, he fit the profile of John Brown, her previous companion. When Abdul arrived four years later, Victoria found a new friend in him.

You managed to trace his family -- how difficult was that and how did they respond to their famous ancestor? Why were they embarrassed to acknowledge him initially?

It took four years to find the family. They contacted me after the first edition was published. They had been embarrassed and ashamed of their ancestor and when they heard I had written his story and found his grave, they contacted me. They then pointed me towards the diary in Karachi.

How did you like the celluloid version of your book?

I think the film has taken the story of Abdul Karim and Queen Victoria around the world. No one had heard of this story or knew that Queen Victoria learnt Urdu for thirteen years. Now they know. A book is always different from a film. A film has to work for an audience and tell the story in under two hours. It is a feature film, so has creative license. It is shot beautifully and the acting is superb. And people want to know more, so they are buying the book, which is great.

Did you meet Dame Judi Dench? And was she a good Queen Victoria? And how about Ali Fazal?

Yes, I met Dame Judi Dench before the filming and afterwards. The whole team travelled together for the international premieres and film festivals. She is a wonderful person, very inspiring and warm. She is fabulous as Queen Victoria. Ali Fazal was a great discovery. He's done a superb job and is going to go places. Their chemistry was wonderful and it's great that they have become really good friends.

Is it difficult writing about historical characters, recreating a different era altogether?

My books are always about historical characters, so I am used to the genre. I love history.

Tell us about your forthcoming work...

I'm working on it -- all I can say is that it will also be historical.