The Unlikeliest Best Friends!

Ambika Shaligram
Friday, 5 October 2018

Journalist Shrabani Basu talks about the interesting lives of Queen Victoria and her close confidant, Abdul Karim. A film on the two, based on her book was released last year and recently, it made its television debut too

History always throws up surprising alliances. Who would have thought that a Muslim clerk of Agra jail, sent as a ‘golden jubilee’ gift to Queen Victoria of England, would become her close confidant? Someone she would back all through, going against her family and household’s wishes.

Journalist Shrabani Basu, who came across Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim’s interesting story, dug up the journals they had maintained, tracked the correspondence which had details about their association, talked to his family members and penned the book Victoria & Abdul. 

Last year, a film based on the book and using the same title, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, was released. In the backdrop of its Sony Pix TV premiere, we talk to Basu, who was also a consultant on the movie.

She shares with us stories of Karim and the Queen, the politics surrounding them, and how the Indian was the original headline hunter of the 19th century. She also mentions that there were newspaper reports, gossip columns and features written on him.
Here’s more from the author...

How do you see the rise of Abdul Karim — from a clerk, to servant to becoming the munshi of the Queen. Is that a result of social mobility?
Karim, a ledger-keeper in Agra jail, has never been a servant. When he goes to England in 1892, he doesn’t know that he is going to be a servant. There seemed to be a miscommunication. He is a very proud man and he tells the Queen, ‘I don’t want to be a servant. I want to go back’. He doesn’t ask for a higher position, but Queen Victoria likes him and she requests him to stay. We have a couple of letters in the journal saying this. 

She is the Queen of England, Empress of India, but she tells Karim that she enjoys his company and that she wants to learn Hindustani (Urdu) from him. Within a year, she promotes him. At the age of 25, he is no longer a servant, he becomes a part of her household. The household comprises the coterie — her lady-in-waiting, her personal secretary, doctor and so on. 

But his rise through the circle wasn’t looked upon kindly... 
He rises only because of the Queen, and nobody else. Others never liked him and were always plotting to bring him down. But they couldn’t, because the Queen was there, always backing him. There was no social mobility really, because the Queen liked him. 

There was a mention that Queen Victoria’s son and her immediate family destroyed all the records and correspondence that Abdul had with her. But you accessed the Queen’s records preserved in the Windsor castle for the book. How did those journals escape the family’s anger?
A few of them escaped their attention and I don’t know how that happened. And, they are in the Windsor castle as a part of the royal collection. I had a look at them. The letters were destroyed and I built up my story from his and her journals, and also the doctor’s (Dr James Reid) journals — especially about the plotting against Abdul. There’s plenty of it, how they talked about him etc. 

Then, there are letters from the viceroy to the Secretary of the State, to the household, from the Queen to the viceroy. The story of what was going on in the court became clear to me and that’s what I constructed through journals and letters, written by people around them. And, let’s not forget, the media reports. A lot of gossip columns were written on him. They called him the ‘Brown’ John Brown (One Mr John Brown was the Queen’s confidant. After his death, Abdul Karim took his place). And, they had features and columns of him. There are multiple sources and I put all of them together. 

Has there been any feedback from the royal family?
They have been sending out Queen Victoria’s journals to the exhibitions because there is so much interest in it. It went to an exhibition at Frogmore House, right after the film came out. They exhibited costumes from the film and the journals. They are now on display at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, where they have another Indian exhibition, called ‘Splendors of the East’

I am thrilled about this. I have found some Hindi lines in the journals — Chai aur bonde hamesha kharab hai; Anda theek se ubala nahi hai. I found them very amusing. The journals have interesting stuff like this. 

Would the perspective of Indian filmmakers be different from the British filmmaker, who directed the movie, Victoria & Abdul? Is there a colonial perspective to the way they looked at it?
Well, the book is written by an Indian! Eighty per cent of the material in the book is mine. I am the source. Everything I described, the household, the attitude of the staff, is taken from my book. The memoirs that she wrote have been turned into dialogues. So even if it’s a British director, the source of the story, the one who uncovered the story is an Indian. 

I am impressed with the way the British director and the team worked. The scenes, costumes were worked out, replicated to the last details. That was fabulous. I don’t see that in Bollywood. In fact, when they were shooting in India, people here said if they could use the reference material for our future projects. 

When he came to India on short visits, Abdul Karim became the eyes and ears of Queen Victoria. Can you explain more?
Oh yes, he did! He explained what was happening here, the riots. And, she wrote to the viceroy wanting to know about the riots, about the provincial assemblies, quotas for Muslims etc. There are letters from Secretary of the State to Viceroy, wanting to know how does the Queen know about it? And, the reply was, ‘Abdul’. Karim tells her that the Queen is popular, but the British administration is not, which is true. Indians hated the British Raj, but everybody respected the Queen. That’s how it was. 

How would you define his political beliefs?
He wanted more rights for Muslims, definitely. He kept saying that Muslims are minorities in India and they need more rights. But he had lot of Hindu friends and spoke about them in his journals. 

What was the Muslim society’s reaction to his travel across the seven seas? How did they treat him when he came back home on visits?
When he came back, Karim was a rich man. The Queen had gifted him a lot of land. She had promoted his father, gave him the title of Khan Bahadur (knighthood). A simple family suddenly became a very important family. They got land, they got title. So people looked up to them. Abdul did a lot of charity and that is recorded.

What was the family’s oral history of Abdul Karim like?
Initially, they said they were ashamed of him. They knew some of the accounts from the biographer and they thought that he was a dirty chap. They came to me when they read my book and said that they didn’t know this side. They didn’t know where he was buried. Now they know and his Indian relatives ensure its maintenance. I united them with their ancestors in a way. 

What about his time here in India, when he comes back after the Queen’s death?
His journals account ends in 1897. But we have accounts from those who met him afterwards. And, then I have the family’s account. He lived eight years after the Queen. He had land, he had his own carriage, a beautiful house, but he wasn’t happy, because he was treated like a criminal. I have descriptions from people who visit him and they write  about Karim. He used to go to the park and sit there, near the statue of Queen Victoria. He was there for the unveiling of the statue. We can speculate, but I think he was completely broken. 

What attitude did the Queen pass on to her descendants?
Her death in 1901 was the beginning of the end of the empire. A few years later came the First World War, then Second World War, the Jallianwala Bagh and arrival of Gandhi — all this changed everything. I say it in my talks that when Edward VII (her son) comes to the throne, he throws Abdul Karim out. That’s the first thing he does, and that’s the beginning of the Brexit. 

The British people are ashamed that the colonial history is not in their curriculum. It is sort of whitewashed from the history. Awareness is growing though. I keep talking about contribution of Indian soldiers to World Wars.

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