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Victoria & Abdul
The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant
Now a major motion picture starring Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and Eddie Izzard, directed by Stephen Frears
'A tale of Empire and intrigue brought vividly back to life' - VIKAS SWARUP, author of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Tall, handsome Abdul Karim was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. An assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail, he suddenly found himself a personal attendant to the Empress of India herself. Within a year, he was established as a powerful figure at court, becoming the queen's teacher, or Munshi. Devastated by the death of John Brown, her Scottish gillie, the queen had at last found his replacement, but her intense and controversial relationship with the Munshi led to a near revolt in the royal household.
Victoria & Abdul explores how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the Empire at a time when independence movements in the sub continent were growing in force. Yet, at its heart, it is a tender love story between an ordinary Indian and his elderly queen - a relationship that survived the best attempts to destroy it.
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About five years ago my family and I visited Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s favourite holiday home. At the time, my eldest child’s dance class happened to be Bollywood themed (it was all very basic - she was only four!) As we entered the golden, ornate Durbar room and heard the Indian music reverberating among the exhibits, my girl made all the English Heritage attendants smile as she strutted off twisting her wrists and wiggling her hips. It’s a memory of an indulgent mum, but it also sticks in my mind because the Durbar Room is absolutely spectacular. Queen Victoria had it designed and constructed to embody a country of which she was Empress but also knew that she could never visit. Victoria and Abdul is the story of the Queen’s love for India portrayed through her friendship with one man which weathered controversy, resentment and persecution.
For a historical biography, this book feels very current. August the fifteenth marked 70 years since British India was partitioned into the Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India. Yes, this was nearly 50 years after the death the of Empress, but the events of this book clearly indicate the religious tensions which underpin the eventual partition of the territories.
Learning about Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, I feel like I’ve learnt not only about these personalities, but about the two countries, the nature of the royal court and household, and the press at the time. The Queen’s relationship with Karim was based on his teaching her about Indian culture and language, hence his title ‘Munshi’. She kept a total of thirteen Hindustani journals, showing her depth of interest in this aspect of her empire.The Munshi, in time, rose in his own ability and status to also write in these journals: “Every individual, every family, every country - each has its own interest to serve, its own battles to fight and its own joys and sorrows.” These are enduring words, but also indicate the struggles which Karim experienced within the royal household.
The court’s resentment and distrust was mainly based on jealousy and institutional racism. The Queen’s family and household disapproved of the influence which the muslim Munshi held over Victoria, especially when it came to the granting of land and titles. Defending the question of the Munshi’s rapid rise in status, the Queen wrote “Archbishops, bishops, generals and peers have risen from the lowest…” and she’s right - Abdul Karim was neither the first nor last person to have risen in rank based on royal favour. However, I’m left undecided about the Munshi’s ultimate motivating forces. He and his family certainly benefited financially from his position with the Queen, but his friendship with her was also clearly very true. It must have been hard for author Shrabani Basu to have visualised the character of the man since so many of his letters were destroyed by Victoria’s son and heir Edward VII, and still further evidence lost as the extended family were dispersed by the events surrounding Indian partition. Basu’s opening description of her visit to Agra searching for Karim Lodge where the Munshi lived out his days after Victoria’s death, is incredibly desolate. I found myself re-reading it after digesting the rest of the book as the extent to which Abdul Karim had been erased from popular history is truly remarkable.
The most appealing aspect of this book is, unsurprisingly, the Empress Victoria herself. From Jenna Coleman’s spirited young Victoria to the illustrious Judi Dench (whose portrayals have become almost indistinguishable from the Queen), recent screen narratives have done no harm to the popular perception of Her Highness as an engaging and formidable woman. Here, the Queen is depicted through excerpts of, and Basu’s interpretations of, the Queen’s journal entries and surviving letters. They show a ruler, and indeed human being, who despite the heavy handed politics for which her government was renowned, was ahead of her time in terms of tolerance, acceptance and multiculturalism. This is something really worth remembering and celebrating.
'totally absorbing' * The Telegraph * 'A tale of Empire and intrigue brought vividly back to life' -- VIKAS SWARUP * author of Slumdog Millionaire * 'A charming tale which should have been told before' * BBC History Magazine *