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QUEEN Victoria (1819-1901), the queen of the United Kingdom, who had assumed the title of the Empress of India as well in 1876 (hence Karachi’s Empress Market), had been learning Urdu for about 13 years from Munshi Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim.

Abdul Karim was from Agra and went to England in 1887. At that time he was 24 and was sent to deliver the ‘mohar’, or the seal, prepared in India to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of her accession to the throne. Charmed by his personality and exotic tales from the east, Queen Victoria employed Abdul Karim as a servant and soon promoted him to the post of a munshi. Much to the displeasure of the establishment managing the royal affairs, known as the Household, Abdul Karim became one of her most trusted men who not only made her love curry, but also taught her to read and write Urdu. He taught the Queen Urdu for about 13 years and returned to India after she died in 1901. At times, the Queen’s fascination with the munshi was thought to be “scandalous” by some, though at that time she was almost 68 and signed her letters to him as “Your loving mother”.

This interesting story was dug up by Shrabani Basu and narrated in her book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant (2010). Though the British movie Victoria & Abdul, based on the book, has received some very dismal reviews, some of the critics have praised it, too. Nominated for many awards and winning a couple of them, the movie was dubbed by some naysayers as an endeavour to whitewashing the British and cover up the brutalities of the colonialism. But others thought the book was “fascinating” and “well-researched”. So, in a way, it has won accolades and disapprovals in almost equal measures. But one feels that it is one of those cases we often hear about: the book was better than the movie.

Munshi Abdul Karim with Queen Victoria. A facsimile (right) of Queen Victoria’s handwritten note in Urdu, taken from her diary.—Courtesy Afkaar
Munshi Abdul Karim with Queen Victoria. A facsimile (right) of Queen Victoria’s handwritten note in Urdu, taken from her diary.—Courtesy Afkaar

While the credit for rediscovering the story and publishing it after extensive research must be given to Shrabani Basu, it is a fact that Afkaar, a literary Urdu magazine published from Karachi by Sehba Lukhnavi, had introduced the interesting tale to the readers way back in 1981 through an issue of the magazine, dubbed as Bartaniya mein Urdu Number (special issue on Urdu in Britain). While publishing the photograph of Queen Victoria with Abdul Karim on the title of the magazine, the editor Sehba Lukhnavi had informed the readers that it was being published for the first time in Pakistan. Acknowledging the credits he wrote “Ibn-i-Insha had guided us towards the historic photograph of Queen Victoria and her Urdu teacher Munshi Abdul Karim. So we asked Saleem Qureshi, the librarian at London’s India Office Library, to request the Royal Archives for the permission to publish the photograph and the facsimile of Queen Victoria’s handwritten note in Urdu. With due permission and thanks, we are publishing the same as provided by the authorities concerned. The picture was taken in 1895 at Garden Cottage, Balmoral.

Ibn-i-Insha (1927-1978) was a humorist, poet, columnist and travelogue writer. But there was a bit of researcher lurking behind the creative genius. Some critics have mentioned that Ibn-i-Insha was seriously planning to do his PhD in Urdu, but could not pursue it. In Dunya gol hai, one of his travel accounts, Ibn-i-Insha had briefly narrated the life and works of Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), the British scholar, linguist, orientalist and explorer. He wanted to write about Burton in details as the life of this explorer reads like a thriller (he had travelled to Makkah in disguise). So Ibn-i-Insha must have noted the rare story about the Queen and Abdul Karim much before Shrabani Basu did.

After the publication of her book’s first edition, Basu was looking for further details and soon the descendents of Abdul Karim contacted her. They were in fact direct descendants of Abdul Rashid, Abdul Karim’s nephew, since Abdul Karim remained childless. They were in Karachi and were in possession of the original diaries of Abdul Karim, thought to be destroyed since after the death of Queen. Abdul Karim was immediately dismissed and sent back to India, where he died in 1909. Most of the papers and documents relating to his service with the Queen were ordered to be destroyed. But somehow these diaries survived and were taken to Pakistan by some of his relatives migrating to Pakistan after the independence. They had surprisingly taken good care of the historic diaries.

She published the revised, second edition in 2011 and soon the movie followed, with some changes for dramatic effects indeed, but for the most part the movie is based on facts.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2019