London-based Shrabani Basu has written biographies before — of the British curry and of the World War II secret agent, Noor Inayat Khan. Her new book, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant is not so much a biography as a story of a relationship. Briefly in Delhi before the book is launched later this month, she spoke about her discovery of Abdul, Britain’s relationship with its imperial past, and parallels between Abdul’s story and that of the post-9/11 world. Extracts from the interview:
So how did you first meet Abdul ?
While researching for my curry book [Curry: The Story of the Nation’s Favourite Dish, 1999], I came across Abdul Karim. He introduced the dish to Queen Victoria. Then during the centenary of Victoria’s death, I visited Osborne House [the royal residence in the Isle of Wight], where I saw a portrait of Abdul at the restored Durbar Room. Since then, I wanted to know more about this mysterious and maligned man.
Was it difficult writing this book, considering you couldn’t interview anyone who knew Abdul personally?
Yes, unlike my previous books, this one is based purely on journal entries and correspondences. It was quite incredible to read through different entries recording the same day: Victoria’s official documents, her Hindustani journal entries, and that of her officials. It was very clear that Victoria and Abdul were living in a bubble of their own.
This is as much a story of British history as it is of Abdul and Victoria. How does Britain look at its imperial history today?
Well, I think there’s much more openness about it than before. When President Pratibha Patil visited Britain last year, Queen Elizabeth met her at the India gallery in Windsor. That was interesting.
Are there echoes in the Victoria-Abdul story and post-9/11 West-East relations?
Absolutely. The dawn raids in East London after the July 7, 2005, London bombings weren’t too different from what happened to Abdul, a Muslim, after Victoria’s death. There are parallels about how countries like Britain view the Muslim world today.