Victoria & Abdul: The story of the unlikely friendship between a queen and her munshi
Abdul Karim was 24 when he travelled from Agra to England in 1887, to serve at Queen Victoria's court
In 1887, a young Indian orderly was brought to England to serve at Queen Victoria's court, during her Golden Jubilee Celebrations. Something about the "tall, grave" Abdul Karim's bearing caught the Queen's eye (he was then 24, she was in her late 60s). He kissed her feet on being presented to Her Majesty; some days later, he surprised her by preparing a sumptuous Indian repast. Karim soon became the Queen's favourite: from waiting at tables, he was promoted to 'munshi'; he taught the Queen Hindustani, shared his opinions on matters pertaining to India, and became Her Royal Highness' closest confidante.
The friendship was one that was frowned upon by both Queen Victoria's court, and her children. Nearly all traces of the correspondence between the Queen and her munshi were destroyed after her death in 1901 by her son, King Edward VII, and Abdul Karim himself sent packing back home to India.
Journalist and writer Shrabani Basu had painstakingly traced the remnants of the correspondence between Queen Victoria and Abdul, Her Majesty's 'Hindustani Journal', and later, Abdul Karim's long-hidden diary, to recreate an image of this unlikely friendship.
It was published in 201o as Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant. The book has now been made into a film by Stephen Frears: it stars Dame Judi Dench as the Queen, and Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim. The trailer, released in May 2017, has garnered a lot of attention (it was to be launched at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, but the makers deferred it following the Manchester terror attack). Victoria & Abdul is slated for a September 2017 release.
In an interview with Firstpost, author Shrabani Basu told us how the film based on her book came about — and how she got interested in the story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim:
With the trailer for Victoria & Abdul having released, there’s a lot of interest in your book, which was published in 2010, once again. Could you tell us a little about how Stephen Frears approached you for this screen adaptation of Victoria & Abdul?
I was approached in 2011 after the publication of the book by quite a few studios, including Working Title. I went with Working Title as they had tied up with screenplay writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliot and War Horse). I love Lee’s work and I thought he was the right person to write the script. Working Title have made some fantastic films, so it was a great combination. Stephen Frears came into the picture later. I was delighted when I was told that he had agreed to direct it. With Dame Judi Dench agreeing to play Victoria, it was a dream team.
Have you seen the trailer of the film; what were you thoughts of Judi Dench and Ali Fazal and their portrayals of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim?
I’ve seen the whole film and both Judi Dench and Ali Fazal are fantastic.
Going back to 2010 at the time your book was published, it was reported that a descendant of Abdul Karim’s approached you and showed you his long-hidden journal… What were your thoughts when you received it? Did it corroborate or provide fresh insights for the research you’d already put into Victoria & Abdul?
I had tried for years to trace the descendants of Abdul Karim. I had found his grave in Agra and his house, but been told that the family had left for Pakistan after Partition, so the trail had gone cold. I published the hardback edition of the book in 2010 and in every media interview I said I was looking for the descendants. Within a month of publication, I was contacted by them and told there was journal in Karachi.
I got my visa and flew to Karachi as soon as I could. When the family gave me the diary, it was the most amazing moment. It’s the sort of moment that historians dream of. This was the journal that the royal household were determined should not be published, and it had survived over a hundred years, travelled from Windsor to Agra and then through the violence of Partition from Agra to Karachi, and finally fallen into my hands. It was an emotional moment as well, as I could feel that the story was finally complete.
It corroborated everything I had researched and added some more details. Above all, it was his voice. I learnt that his wife had also written a journal, but that had clearly got lost during the Partition. It would have been wonderful to have her view on things as well. Karim mentions her journal in his diary but he says he will leave it to her to tell her story. Unfortunately, we will never get to read this.
I revised my book with the diary and the paperback was published in 2011.
When working on the book, you had translated the 'Hindustani Journal' of the Queen. What to you were the most striking or memorable aspects of those 13 volumes? What struck you about the quality of the queen’ notes/reminiscences?
Reading the 13 volumes of the Hindustani Journals was amazing. This was their space, something the royal family and the household could not destroy after the Queen’s death. Initially his (Karim's) English was weak and she would correct him, and her Urdu was faulty. By the end of the 13th journal, his English had improved and she was writing half a page in fluent Urdu.
The little details in the Hindustani Journal provided the insights into their life. The Queen would often go to the munshi’s house for tea and take the royalty of Europe to visit. When the munshi’s cat had kittens, she noted that she was going to see them. It was the ordinary things they shared that brought the story to life.
The Queen never missed a lesson, whether she was in her palaces or travelling. She would take her lessons on the ship or in the summerhouse in Balmoral. If Karim was ill, she would go to his house, prop him up on pillows, and take her lesson.
And how different (or similar) was Abdul Karim’s journal, in style, in tone, in content, in its concerns, from the Hindustani Journal(s)?
The Hindustani Journals are a daily record of their days. It is a process by which she learnt and practised her Urdu.
Karim’s journals are an account of his days in the palaces from 1887-1897, from the Golden Jubilee of Victoria’s reign to the Diamond Jubilee.
Since a majority of the correspondence between the Queen and Abdul Karim had been destroyed by Kind Edward, how difficult was it to trace the relationship between the duo?
I traced the story through various sources: the Hindustani Journals, the diary kept by the Queen’s physician Sir James Reid, letters between the Queen and the Viceroy of India, letters between the Royal Household and the Viceroy, newspaper reports and other sources. It took four years to research.
Could we go back a little to how you personally became fascinated with the story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim? What was it about this aspect of history that drew you to explore it further?
I had heard a bit about Queen Victoria and her love of curries, and knew she had some Indian servants. It was on trip to Osborne House in the Isle of Wight, that I saw the portraits of Karim. They spoke to me. He was clearly no servant. He was painted like a nawab. It aroused my curiosity and took me on his trail.
What was the court of Queen Victoria in 1887 — the one that Abdul Karim came to as a 24-year-old — like? What were Karim’s sentiments on encountering it?
It was a court full of pomp and formality. It would have taken him weeks to understand the protocol and ranking. It would have been quite formidable to a young clerk from Agra.
How would you characterise the relationship between Queen Victoria and Munshi Abdul Karim? What sense did you gain of both their personalities when you were going over the material they’d left behind?
I think it worked at various levels — he was her closest friend, her confidant. He also like a son to her. At the same time, the physical aspect was important. Queen Victoria liked a strong young man standing by her side and taking care of her. She had liked John Brown and Abdul Karim later filled that space.
She wrote to him every day, sometimes several times a day. She ended her letters with crosses (kisses).
Did Abdul Karim manipulate the Queen into raising him to a position of importance?
He asked for a pension for his father. The rest — land, titles — was freely bestowed on him by the Queen. He was allowed to spend a large sum in renovating his house, was given his own carriage and servants, land in Agra and titles.
What to you was the most poignant aspect of the friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim?
That it was a relationship between two people — from opposite sides of the spectrum — but who related to one another purely as human beings and forged a unique friendship.
And what do you hope this film will be able to tell its viewers about this relationship, these two personalities, and that period in history?
It is above all a story of human relationships against the background of Empire. It tells a hidden story.
Watch the trailer for Victoria & Abdul here:
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