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V&A

Abdul Karim was more than just Queen Victoria’s prized Indian servant. He became her teacher, confidant and companion. Shrabani Basu tells the love story of a relationship at the heart of the British Empire

india Updated: Jan 03, 2010 01:37 IST

The 81-year-old Victoria had died peacefully in her sleep three days earlier, her family beside her. She was now dressed according to her wishes for this final journey to Windsor. ... The procession filed past her son and heir Edward VII and his wife Queen Alexandra, the Queen’s children and grandchildren, together with a collection of her most trusted servants and Household members. Each stood for a few moments before the coffin of the woman who had ascended the throne at the age of 18 and proceeded to define an age. The King then allowed Abdul Karim to enter the Queen’s bedroom. He would be the last person to see her body alone. The Munshi entered, his head bowed, dressed in a dark Indian tunic and turban. His presence filled the room.

The King, knowing his mother’s wishes, allowed him a few moments alone with her. The Munshi’s face was a map of emotions as he gazed at his dead Queen, her face lit by the softly glowing candles. She had given him “a humble servant” more than a decade of unquestioned love and respect. His thoughts raced through the years spent in her company: their first meeting when he had stooped to kiss her feet at Windsor in the summer of 1887; the lazy days spent together as he taught her his language and described his country; the gossip and companionship they shared; her generosity to him; her loneliness that he understood. Above all, her stubborn defence of him at all times.

He touched his hand to his heart and stood silently, fighting back the tears. His lips mouthed a silent prayer to Allah to rest her soul. After a final look and bow he left the room slowly as two workmen closed and sealed the Queen’s coffin behind him....

But only days after the Queen’s death, the Munshi was woken by the sound of loud banging on his door. Princess Beatrice, Queen Alexandra and some guards stood outside. The King had ordered a raid on his house, demanding he hand over all the letters Victoria had written to him. The Munshi, his wife and his nephew watched in horror as the letters in the late Queen’s distinctive handwriting were torn from his desk and cast into a bonfire outside Frogmore Cottage.

As the “Dear Abdul” letters burnt in the cold February air, the Munshi stood in silence. Without his Queen he was defenceless and alone. Postcards and letters from the Queen, dated from Windsor Castle, Balmoral, the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert and hotels across Europe, crackled in the flames.

The Queen used to write to the Munshi every day, signing her letters variously as “your dearest friend”, “your true friend”, even “your dearest mother”. The Munshi’s distraught wife sobbed beside him, tears streaming down her veiled face. The nephew looked frightened as he was ordered to bring out every scrap of paper from the Munshi’s desk with the Queen’s seal on it and confine it to the mercy of the guards. The Munshi’s family, once so essential to the Royal Court, stood bewildered, treated like common criminals. With Queen Victoria in her grave, the Establishment had come down hard and fast on the Munshi. King Edward VII asked him unceremoniously to pack his bags and return to India.

The fairytale — that had begun the day the young Abdul Karim had entered the Court in 1887 — was over.

Love at first sight

“A fine morning with a fresh air,” noted the Queen, as she looked out of her bedroom window at Windsor Castle the next day, but she was feeling “very tired”. It was the third day of her Golden Jubilee celebrations and the monarch knew she faced another day of buntings and presentations. The Queen sat lost in thought as she was dressed by her maids.

She had chosen to wear widow’s black ever since the death of Prince Albert in 1861. At last, she adjusted her cap and ascended into her carriage for the short drive to Frogmore with her daughter Beatrice. As they rode down the rolling green of the Long Walk in Windsor Park, past the rows of chestnut trees, the Queen thought of the excitement of the past two days and the fireworks of the night before. Everything now seemed so still.

At Frogmore House, her eldest daughter Victoria and her granddaughter Vicky were already there waiting for her; and so was a special gift from India.

Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh — the Queen’s Jubilee presents from India — had arrived early to wait at table. The breakfast room at Frogmore, a sombre place at most times, seemed to come alive with the new arrivals.

Buksh’s practised elegance matched Karim’s naturally regal presence. Their clothes made them look almost princely. The Queen was delighted. Dressed in striking scarlet tunics with white turbans, they approached her reverentially. The Queen noted Mohammed Buksh’s appearance, “very dark with a very smiling expression”.

She described the much younger Abdul Karim as “much lighter, tall and with a fine serious countenance”. Both servants approached her slowly, their eyes lowered to gaze at the ground as they had been instructed to do. Then, with a deep bow, Karim and Buksh bent down to kiss the Queen’s feet.

As he rose, young Karim’s dark eyes fleetingly met the Queen’s gaze.

Suddenly Victoria no longer felt as tired.

THE CURRY KING

In the relaxed atmosphere of Osborne [in the Isle of Wight where the Royal Household moved as part of the Jubilee tour], just weeks since he had kissed Queen Victoria’s feet, the young Karim decided to surprise her. One day he came to the kitchen in Osborne House with the spice box that he had carried from India. He was going to cook a curry for the Queen.

To the amazement of the cooks in the Royal kitchen, Karim was soon chopping, churning and grinding the masalas. The aroma of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and nutmeg wafted through the room.

Before long, Karim had prepared a fine Indian meal: chicken curry, daal and a fragrant pilau. More was to follow. Karim was soon stirring up exotic biryanis and dum pukht, dishes from the Mughal kitchens. Kormas simmered in the cast-iron pots and ground almonds and cream laced the rich curries. For the first time in her life, Queen Victoria was introduced to the taste and smell of India. She described it as “excellent” and ordered the curries to be made regularly.

THE HINDUSTANI STUDENT

The ageing Queen wanted to learn Hindustani and asked Karim to teach her. The youth from Agra was undaunted at this new job. He proved a serious teacher and a hard taskmaster. Karim ordered special gold-lined journals from the Royal stationers and sat with the Queen every evening, filling these up. He began by teaching her a few everyday words.

A phrase book was devised with simple words written in Hindustani in the Roman script and their meanings in English. The small red and gold pocket-sized phrase book became the Queen’s constant companion. Soon the lessons progressed further.

Karim would write a line in Urdu, followed by a line in English and then a line of Urdu in Roman script. The Queen would copy these out. Barely a few weeks after their arrival, an excited Queen noted in her Journal: “Am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is great interest to me for both the language and the people. I have naturally never come into real contact with before.”

Sir Henry Ponsonby was not spared the Queen’s newfound enthusiasm and was handed a phrasebook of common Hindustani words by the Queen. He wrote with dry humour to his wife, “She has given me a Hindi vocabulary to study.”

THe rise of Abdul Karim

On 11 August 1888, the Queen noted in her Journal: “Am making arrangements to appoint Abdul a munshi, as I think it was a mistake to bring him over as a servant to wait at table, a thing he had never done, having been a clerk or munshi in his own country and being of rather a different class to the others.”

Karim had told her that he was unhappy with his position as a table-hand and that he wanted to return to India since it was a demeaning job.

The Queen immediately decided to raise his rank and make him stay.

“He [Abdul] was anxious to return to India, not feeling happy under the existing circumstances. On the other hand, I particularly wish to retain his services, as he helps me in studying Hindustani, which interests me very much, and he is very intelligent and useful.”

Abdul Karim was now given the grand title of Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim. He became the Queen’s official Indian clerk and said goodbye to waiting at tables, a job now left to his colleague Buksh and the other Indian servants.

All photographs of Karim waiting at table were destroyed and the Queen commissioned his portrait to be painted by Joachim Von Angeli. While the other Indian servants watched in wonder and slight envy, Karim grew in importance.

He was always by the Queen’s side, talking to her in his gentle voice, caring for her needs and providing a sympathetic ear when she needed it. The Hindustani lessons continued, the Queen making remarkable progress.