Queen Victoria remained the face of the British empire’s rule in India. Spoken about but never seen in the subcontinent and a ruler from afar, she seemed to epitomise the hauteur of colonial rule. However, one book lay bare her warm and compassionate side, often seen in the company of an Indian attendant, Abdul Karim. Shrabani Basu’s 2010 book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant is a rare insight into a little-known and yet beautiful relationship. The non-fiction book is being adapted to the screen by renowned British filmmaker Stephen Frears. The legendary Judi Dench plays Victoria, while Indian actor Ali Fazal has scored the role of Karim. The movie will be released in 2017.
When Karim was sent to Britain as a “gift” to the British monarchy, little did anyone know that it would be the beginning of an extraordinary bond. Basu’s effort chronicles the companionship shared by Victoria with her “Dear Munshi” and the many attempts made by the royal family to subvert the relationship. Basu, who has previously written Spy Princess The Life of Noor Hayat Khan, Curry, and For King and Another Country, spoke to Scroll.in about the incredible story and the fortitude it bears in testing political times.
How did you chance upon the story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim?
As part of my research for an earlier book, I knew that Queen Victoria enjoyed curries and that she had some Indian servants. It was on a visit to Osborne House in the Isle of Wight that I saw the portraits of Abdul Karim. He looked more like a nawab than a servant. I saw an album of photos and it was clear that he was very close to the Queen. I decided to explore some more.
Was there any resistance from the royal household toward the book, given their documented animosity for Abdul Karim?
Not in the least. They were very helpful. I started my research at Windsor Castle in the Royal Archives. They brought me everything I wanted to see. The Hindustani Journals had not been read for over a hundred years. It was amazing. They allowed me to take photocopies and have it translated. There were also some letters which were quite revealing.
As an author and journalist looking back on this story, how much do you think ‘Victoria and Abdul’ changes Queen Victoria’s perceived public image?
When I started my research, my perception of Queen Victoria was that of a dour old lady, dressed in black, whose most famous line was “We are not amused.” To me she represented Empire, the crushing of the Mutiny, the seizure of the Koh-i-Noor etc. But as my research progressed, I realised how progressive she was, and how she was way ahead of her time. She learnt Urdu, hated racism and stuck up for Abdul Karim in the face of opposition from her family, her household and the Prime Minister. I also realised just how much she loved India and Indians. She longed to travel to India, see the Taj, but could never do so. She was also very romantic. I think the book does bring out a different aspect of Queen Victoria.
Was Abdul Karim more than a faithful companion to the monarch?
Karim was 24 when he met the Queen. It would have been an overwhelming experience. He did not want to be a servant and wanted to return, but the Queen begged him to stay. He was promoted within a year and became her Munshi. He was devoted to the Queen. His private journals and diaries reveal how much he admired her. He remained loyal to her till the end. Even after her death, when he was insulted and sent back to India, he did not talk about the Royal Family and his treatment at their hands. He maintained a dignified silence and lived quietly in Agra.
You never once insinuate that the pair had anything romantic going on between them, yet you once called ‘Victoria and Abdul’ a love story.
I think relationships work at different levels. The one between Victoria and Abdul was very nuanced. He was her constant companion, her most trusted friend, somebody who crossed all the formalities of the court and came to her as a real person. Did they have a physical relationship? I would not suggest that at all. But yes, there is tenderness. There is also a strong element of the physical. She chose the “tall and fair” Abdul Karim over the other servant, the portly and smiling Mohammed Buksh.
Victoria was a romantic. She liked the presence of a tall, strong man beside her. After the death of her husband, Albert, she went into mourning and was only brought out of it by a Scottish ghillie, John Brown. There is no doubt that she loved John Brown. After Brown’s death, she was heart-broken again. Four years later, Abdul Karim entered her life. I think he gave her a new lease of life and she lived to see her Diamond Jubilee only because of him. The Hindustani Journals that she wrote every day over 13 years shows how special this relationship was.
It’s remarkable that such an interesting companionship went largely unreported. Why was the story was submerged?
Because the British establishment wanted to kill it. They wanted to erase Abdul Karim from the history books. All the letters written to him by the Queen were burnt after her death. Even Christmas cards were burnt. Every effort was made to see that he did not publish his journals. He was hounded out of the country. The man who was her closest companion, who had caused a storm at court, was confined to be a footnote in history.
How did the movie adaptation come about?
It was optioned almost immediately after publication. Lee Hall, the playwright and screenplay writer (Billy Eliot, War Horse) had heard my interview on BBC Radio 4 and was intrigued by the story. He and his wife, Baroness Beeban Kidron, optioned the film. She is the producer and led the project with amazing energy. Soon Working Title, BBC Films were involved and eventually the director, Stephen Frears, came on board as did Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria.
The movie will depict a Muslim man enjoying an important position in the British monarchy. It’s interesting that it will be released following Brexit.
Absolutely! The fact that there was a Muslim at the heart of the British administration at the height of the Empire is something that is hugely significant. His treatment afterwards at the hand of the Establishment still has relevance today.
India has largely been unaware of this unusual relationship. What would you want them to take away from the story and the movie?
It is a slice of history that has been hidden and destroyed. I think it is important that people get to know this story. But at its heart, it is a story of human relationships. And that, I hope, is what people take away.