Queen Victoria’s and her love for learning Urdu : Shrabani Basu
In a world full of intolerance, Islamophobia and growing inclination towards right wing politics, author Shrabani Basu‘s book- ‘Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant’ comes as a much needed breather in this political cacophony. The book brings forth a story of human relationship that knows no religion, nationality and social status, a kind which we all need to read about today. Shrabani’s critically acclaimed book is being adapted for screen by British filmmaker Stephen Frears starring Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and whole host of brilliant actors. In an interview with us, Shrabani reveals some very interesting facts about the Empress of India and her special relationship with Abdul Karim. Read on…
This book ” Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. ” is a beautiful read and you can find the book review here at GoodReads.com/
Queen Victoria remains an enigmatic persona to many, what fascinated you to write about her Shrabani?
Growing up in India, my impression of Queen Victoria was of someone who represented the Empire, defined an age, wore black most of her life, was pretty dour and whose most famous phrase was “We are not amused.” However, as I started exploring her life and her relation with Abdul Karim, I discovered another side to Queen Victoria. She was a real romantic at heart and was prepared to take on her household and her family in defence of Abdul Karim. I realised her love for India and how she longed to visit. I started seeing her in a different light.
Stephen Frears’ film adaptation of your book will release this year. How excited are you and what are your expectations?
It was very exciting to see the interest in the film from major studios. A film always reaches out to a far wider audience. It’s great to see my book inspiring and becoming part of another creative process. When Lee Hall said he wanted to write the screenplay, it was wonderful. He has written ‘ Billy Elliot’ and ‘ War Horse’ . He’s written about people from the wrong side of the tracks. I thought he was the perfect person to bring the story of Abdul to screen. Stephen Frears is a fabulous director. I have loved his films ‘ The Queen’ and ‘ Philomena’ . And with Dame Judi Dench playing Victoria, I could hardly ask for more. It’s a dream team. I think it will be a fabulous production.
Some hardliners have disrupted the film’s shooting in India. What are your thoughts? Is India becoming a highly intolerant and polarised nation?
This is a historical film. There was a statue of Queen Victoria in Agra in those days. Objecting to it makes no sense. Any film, set during the Raj or the freedom struggle, will have portraits of British Kings and Queens and the British flag flying on Indian buildings. That’s what period films do. To object to a film set is bizarre.
Coming back to your book, has anybody from the Royal Family read your book perhaps?
I researched my book at Windsor Castle using the Royal Family Archives, so they are aware of it. But I have no idea if they have read it.
Abdul Karim was a clerk in Agra Jail. He was sent to England as a present for the Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. His job was to stand behind the Queen, wait at table and look grand in his turban and Indian clothes. But very quickly, the Queen took a shine to Abdul. She wanted to learn Urdu from him, and within a year, he was promoted to the rank of her personal Indian secretary. He was given the title of “Munshi” or teacher. The establishment hated Abdul Karim. Not only was he an Indian, he was also a commoner. After the Mutiny of 1857, which was led under the name of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the British were suspicious of Muslims. They tried to accuse Abdul Karim of being a spy for the Emir of Afghanistan, they had him watched when he went to India, but they could pin nothing on him. After Queen Victoria’s death, her son Edward VII had all her letters to Karim destroyed and he was sent back to Agra. The British establishment tried to delete Karim from the history books.
Nobody had heard of him in Agra, when I went there to do my research. I found his abandoned grave in Agra. Even his descendants did not know where he was buried. Now the family go there and pay their respects. It’s a good feeling to have united them with Abdul Karim.
Abdul Karim brought India to the Queen. He told her about Agra and the Taj Mahal, about the festivals and the food. He also told her about the riots between Hindus and Muslims in Agra and talked about representation of Muslims in the Provincial Assembly. Soon the Queen was learning about the politics of the sub-continent. She wrote lengthy letters to the Viceroy, inquiring about the religious riots and wanted to know how they could be prevented.
Would you say the Queen and Abdul had shared a romantic relationship or was it simply a case of mutual admiration ?
The relationship worked at different levels. I think it was one of companionship and closeness, but there was also a definite physical element to it. Queen Victoria liked to have a tall, strong man stand beside her and care for her. After the death of John Brown, Abdul Karim filled this void. While her household and family kept a formal distance from her, Karim crossed that barrier and related to her as a human being. To the lonely Queen, he became a true friend. I think her days spent with Karim gave Queen Victoria a new lease of life. She built a Durbar Hall in Osborne House and created a mini-India there. With Karim by her side, she received Indian Royalty, spoke to them in Urdu, ate curries and lived her dream as Empress of India. Fittingly, she died at Osborne House, and her Indian servants stood guard over her coffin as it lay in state.
Do you think the film will bring about change in people’s perception and help break the barriers?
At its heart, this is a story about human relationships. I think it is important to realise that at the height of Empire, a young Muslim man had a central place in the Queen’s Court and provided her with the companionship that she longed for. She valued him as a human being, not caring about his religion, nationality or class. What happened to him after her death has resonances of Brexit Britain. I do hope that people take away a message of love and tolerance from the book and the film.
Credit Source: The Times of India