22 Aug 2017

The unlikely friendship of Victoria and Abdul

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 22 August 2017

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the royal family tried to erase all evidence of her close 13-year friendship with a young Muslim clerk she called ‘the Munshi’.

It seemed they’d succeeded until journalist Shrabani Basu chanced upon the first clues to their close bond at a former royal holiday residence on the Isle of Wight.

Basu’s investigation of Karim and his relationship with Victoria eventually became a book, and this year the story is told in the film Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench.

Shrabani Basu was visiting the former royal holiday residence Osborne House to write a story about its restoration. Among the portraits of Indian princes and soldiers in the Durbar room, she came across an unusual portrait of one of Queen Victoria's servants, Abdul Karim.

“He was painted in red and gold and cream. It was a very lush portrait. And he was holding a book, so he was not looking like any servant.”

Around the house were other portraits, photos and busts of Karim, including a portrait in Queen Victoria’s bedroom.

“It became very clear to me that he was someone quite special, and I wanted to know more.”

So began a five-year investigation covering three countries.

One of Basu's first trips was to Windsor Castle to see the 13 volumes of journals had written in Urdu – a Hindustani language Karim had taught her. It seemed no-one, let alone a western historian, had been near the journals in 100 years, she says.

“At the age of 68, she started a whole new journey with this young man. He was teaching her the language, he was cooking her curries, and she was having a whole Indian experience. She was Empress of India, but she’d never been to the country. India was coming to her in the shape of Abdul Karim.”

Later she travelled to Karim’s hometown of Agra and found his rundown grave, which contained remnants of semi precious gems and carvings that had been looted.

“I stood in this desolate graveyard and I thought ‘This was an important man, I’ve seen his journals. He spent 13 years with Queen Victoria and nobody knows him. I’ve got to write his story.”

Because Karim didn’t have children, it was tricky to locate his descendants, but after Basu published the first edition of her book on him, one contacted her.

She learnt that even though the royals had ordered Karim’s diary be destroyed, it still existed in Karachi.

In the diary – which includes a lot about his childhood, his impressions of England, his travels – Karim is very respectful of Victoria and hints she is a true and loyal friend. Sometimes he addresses her as ‘you’.

Karim was 24 when Victoria employed him, and had a fresh informality and innocence which would have been in high contrast to the manner of her staff and family, Basu says.

“Abdul very innocently crossed that barrier and he spoke to her as a human being. I think that was the appeal.”

Yet the lords and ladies couldn’t stand a commoner being close to the Queen and were nasty to him, Basu says.

Letters sent between other members of the household refer to Indians as "Injuns" and the "Black Brigade".

Hours after Victoria’s funeral, the new king Edward VII ordered a raid on Karim’s house and all of the letters Victoria had written him were seized and burnt.

He and the other Indian servants were sent to Agra and he died just eight years later.

While photos of Victoria show her as formidable and stern, her journals and letters reveal her to be frank, passionate and no prude, Basu says.

Several times she writes to Karim about her concerns that his wife is not conceiving and gives him advice.

She also sends her family memos, telling them off for bad behaviour.

“She accuses them of racism, she calls them out and says ‘You have class snobbery, racism and you will be respectful to the Munshi.”