UK royal court’s Indian Munshi finds rightful place in Raj history
Historian-author Shrabani Basu’s book — Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant — talks about the curious friendship between Queen Victoria and an assistant clerk from Agra Jail sent to her court in the late 19th century while researching a previous book on the history of curries in Britain.world Updated: Oct 10, 2017 14:43 IST
The first Indian to ever hold an important position in the royal court of Britain has finally been restored to his rightful place in history, says the UK- based author who unearthed the story of Abdul Karim — a humble servant who went on to become Queen Victoria’s Munshi during the Raj era.
Shrabani Basu’s book titled Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant formed the basis of a new UK box-office success ‘Victoria & Abdul’, which has now opened in cinemas across India.
“It is great to see the picture of Abdul looming over Leicester Square and looking down from the famous red London buses. This was the man that the British establishment wanted to erase from history, but he’s out there now, and they are packing the cinemas to hear his story. It is very satisfying,” said Basu.
The historian-author had stumbled upon the curious friendship between the British monarch who ruled over India and an assistant clerk from Agra Jail sent to her court in the late 19th century while researching a previous book on the history of curries in Britain.
She discovered that Abdul had also succeeded in carving out a niche in the royal kitchens to cook halal Indian food, which was enjoyed by the ageing monarch and also served to visiting dignitaries.
“Abdul brought curry to the royal kitchens. With Queen Victoria as his patron, curries became fashionable. Today it has become an essential part of British cuisine and is a multi-million-pound industry,” notes Basu.
As the author began following the trail of Abdul, who had been bestowed the rather grand title of Munshi or teacher by Queen Victoria, a visit to Windsor Castle provided her access to a rare set of Hindustani journals — a collection of note- books filled with the monarch’s own handwriting practising her Urdu.
These journals revealed the real voice of the Empress of India, who clearly felt more at ease to pen down her more personal thoughts in a language that was not accessible to too many people around her.
“She steeped herself in her later years in Indian culture. She learnt to read and write in Urdu, she had curries cooked in her royal palaces - all under the guidance of her Munshi,” explains Basu.
However, the close bond between the ageing monarch and a mere servant from India did not go down well in the royal household, many of whom even threatened to go on strike against what they branded as “Munshi mania”.
As a result, soon after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 there was a concerted effort on the part of the monarchy to erase all traces of Abdul by burning most of his personal belongings.
These included letters exchanged between the Queen and her young Munshi, who was himself driven to an early grave eight years later in his hometown of Agra in 1909.
The India release of ‘Victoria & Abdul’, in which Dame Judi Dench and Ali Fazal take on the central roles, is now set to also help restore some respect for Abdul in his country of birth, where his grave in Agra had been discovered by Basu in a dilapidated state.
“I know his family and descendants are very happy that his place in history has been restored. He was the first Indian to have an important position in the royal court as the Queen’s principal Indian secretary and Munshi. He taught her Urdu and it is his influence that led to the building of the Durbar Room in Osborne House (Isle of Wight), a place visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists to the UK every year,” said Basu.
The author said it is “wonderful” that someone who was so unceremoniously deported from the UK soon after his mentor’s death has reclaimed his place as an important chapter in the history of the British Raj.