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The Munshi and the Queen

May 28, 2010

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KARACHI, May 27 The remarkable relationship between Abdul Karim, an ordinary Indian, and Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom and self-styled Empress of India, was keenly highlighted at the launch of Victoria and Abdul the True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant here on Thursday.

Shrabani Basu, the London-based Indian author of the book, was on hand to explain just how this Victorian fairy-tale unfolded. Reading extracts from the book and with the aid of slides, the author masterfully retold the story that seemed to be a fantastic melange of history, drama and fantasy. As the title aptly suggests, Abdul Karim rose from being an assistant clerk in India to being the Munshi, or secretary, to the Queen.

Ms Basu said this was her first visit to Karachi and what made the launch special was that many of Munshi Abdul Karim's descendents had settled in the metropolis after partition. Several family members were present at the event. She said this was a story of “two people from very broad spectrums ... the Empress of India and a clerk from Agra ... who had a meeting of minds”.

Reading from the book, Shrabani Basu vividly described the first meeting between the Queen and the Munshi. The event was Victoria's golden jubilee in 1887. Abdul Karim and another Indian, Mohammad Bakhsh, were “presents from India” for the Queen. The monarch instantly took a liking to the young Abdul Karim and the two Indian servants added much-needed colour to the court, with their scarlet tunics and white turbans.

Victoria wanted to invite Indian princes to the jubilee celebrations not only to add colour to the event but also to substantiate her claim of being Empress of India. She had never been to India but wanted to bring this faraway jewel in her crown to Britain. Hence with the Indian royalty came ordinary Indians as well.

Looking resplendent in chooridar pyjamas and exquisite sherwanis, Abdul Karim taught Victoria Urdu. The sovereign did a fair job writing the language and as Ms Basu showed in a photograph, she once signed off as Victoria, Qaiser-i-Hind on a document.

The Munshi also captivated the Queen through his culinary skills. One day he decided to whip up a curry and serve it to her. Victoria was delighted with the concoction and from then on curry was cooked in the royal kitchen everyday. The author said the Queen was particularly fond of chicken curry and daal.

The writer observed that ever since the death of Albert, the Prince Consort, in 1861, Victoria went into a period of mourning and would wear only black. She had grown close to John Brown, her Scottish gillie, and was devastated at his death. Hence when Abdul Karim entered her life, it had an uplifting effect on the monarch who was greatly depressed by the deaths of both her husband and her trusted servant.

The Munshi's presence at court had visible effects, as the Queen grew quite close to him. A small army of servants was imported from India and Abdul Karim was promoted from being the Queen's waiter to her special secretary. He was given a carriage and began acting like a member of the gentry. Victoria even nursed him when he was ill. The Munshi began acting in the Queen's tableaux and started receiving gifts from the monarch regularly.

Abdul Karim's rising influence at court started attracting resentment from 'the Household', or Victoria's English servants and attendants. While Abdul Karim was on a trip to India, Victoria ordered the Marquess of Lansdowne — the then viceroy — to grant the Munshi 150 acres of prime land in Agra as a jagir. The viceroy grudgingly obliged. This made Abdul Karim rub shoulders with the jagirdars of Agra, while his father was made a Khan Bahadur. Meanwhile, Karim Cottage (which still stands) was built for the Munshi in Balmoral, Scotland.

By now Victoria's courtiers had had enough of the Munshi and soon plots were hatched and conspiracies were planned to implicate Abdul Karim in wrongdoing and thus distance him from the Queen. He was wrongly accused of theft and being a spy for Muslims, specifically the Afghans. The viceroy's men trailed him whenever he visited India in the hope of finding incriminating evidence. But there was none.

Members of the Household came together and decided to go on strike if the Queen took the Munshi on her next trip to Europe. When this was communicated to Victoria, she flew into a rage and said she would have none of it. She accused the Household of snobbery and racism and forbade them from referring to the Indian servants as “blacks”.

However, Munshi Abdul Karim's fairy-tale life would soon take a turn for the worse. When Victoria died in 1901, all his privileges were snatched and he was hastily bundled off back to India. As Ms Basu noted, the morning after the monarch's demise, the Munshi was woken up at dawn by a loud knock. Beatrice, the Queen's daughter, was at the door, guards in tow, and demanded all the letters from Victoria that were with Abdul Karim. These were burnt in a bonfire.

Victoria's son and heir, Edward VII, who had never liked the Munshi, ordered him and all the other Indian servants to pack their bags and get ready for the trip home. Abdul Karim died a few years after Victoria in 1909 and today lies in an unkempt grave in Agra next to his father. One of the most powerful men in Victoria's court became, as Ms Basu put it, a footnote in history.

Victoria and Abdul has been published by Oxford University Press.