Title: Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant
Author: Shrabani Busi
Genre: Non-fiction, History
Publisher: The History Press
Published: 21st Jult 2017
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.
Often the most interesting stories that come from the historical record are the ones that we do not learn about on a school syllabus, but that we discover by chance, or that come out years after the event – whatever that event may be, and are told with a truthfulness and raw emotion, and that complement what we already know about history and add to our understandings and the record that was either wiped clean or hidden by those who did not want it known, and there are many examples of this throughout history. One such example is one that, until the movie came out last year, I had not known anything about, and ticks off the two movie categories in my Pop Sugar Reading Challenge, and my book bingo this year. After the movie, which spanned the final jubilee year of Queen Victoria, I was intrigued about the story, and where it had come from, and how Abdul had fared after he went back to India – as we were only given a small glimpse at the end of the movie. What I discovered was what we saw in the movie, and much, much more.
So I tracked down the book, Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. Starting more than ten years earlier than the movie, with the Golden Jubilee in 1887, and ending in 1901, after the Queen’s death in the January of that year. During his time in England, Abdul Karim saw two jubilee celebrations – the Gold and the Diamond, and the heart of the English Empire, and became a good friend and Munshi to the Queen. His arrival, and elevation to roles beyond that of servant, and the trust Queen Victoria placed in him during her last years was seen by her family and household staff as undesirable, and they tried at every turn to undermine the Queen and her decisions, in particular her son, Bertie, who would become King Edward the VII, whose subsequent line would consist of King George the VI, who saw England through World War Two, and the threat of the Nazis, after his brother, Edward the VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
But Queen Victoria stuck to her guns and continued her Urdu lessons with Abdul filling many journals, so she could speak with her Indian servants, Abdul, and his family when they arrived to live with him in England, and she ensured that they were well-looked after, another thing her family and staff felt was an affront to the image of royalty and the empire. What follows is an intricate story of the inner workings of Queen Victoria’s house and her delightful friendship with Abdul, and the respect she showed him, giving him a decent wage, helping his family and learning his language. In a time in history when many people would have seen Abdul as a subservient in England, and very much did, the Queen treated Abdul with respect and as an equal, treasuring her journals and letters from him. Upon her death, Abdul and his family returned to India, and a parcel of land, but the correspondence he had had with his Queen, were destroyed by her family and household staff.
In a world of prejudice and racism, Abdul broke barriers with Queen Victoria and into her society, and was then scrubbed from history until recently, or if not scrubbed, largely ignored when his influence was so significant upon one of the longest reigning monarchs of England, known as the Empress of India at the time. This is a book that needs to be read by history lovers, and those intrigued by the hidden histories that we have not had much of a chance to hear about.