LOVE AND LOATHING IN THE HEART OF EMPIRE

The story of the relationship between Britain’s queen and a young Indian Muslim remained a secret for many decades, writes Yameema Mitha

 Shrabani Basu’s book, Victoria and Abdul, has been turned into a film directed by Stephen Frears and starring Oscar winner Judi Dench. But it is not a novel. It is a meticulous work of historical research, no less sensational than anything the tabloid press could dream up.

Queen Victoria’s great affection for Abdul Karim, who met her when he was waiting on her at table, and who taught her Urdu for more than 10 years, till her death in 1901, became a well-kept secret. That was thanks to a collective conspiracy of silence, aided by the paranoid zeal of King Edward VII, who burned every communication between the two.

Not until the 1980s did the veil begin to lift, when Farrukh Dhondy wrote a dramatic monologue, televised on Channel 4 in Britain, then extended into a play performed in Britain and Mumbai. In 1996, Sushila Anand wrote a book called Queen Victoria’s Dear Abdul. In 2004 Abdul was entered into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and further programmes followed. There are references to Victoria’s Munshi (language teacher) in documentaries, lectures, and academic articles, but it was only with Basu’s book that public awareness became widespread.

That might be because the story of her research is as interesting as that of Victoria and Abdul. She visited Windsor Library while examining the history of curries in Britain, and saw some of Victoria’s journals – written in Urdu. That led her to Abdul Karim’s grave in Agra, but his descendants were untraceable.

Once Basu’s book was published in 2010, however, Abdul’s relatives in Pakistan contacted her, and after long formalities, she finally met the family in Karachi. There she made a discovery any journalist, let alone a historical researcher, would dream of: Abdul’s diary. She says she ‘instantly recognised’ the distinctive Windsor stationery, brown with gold edges.

Basu was surprised at the flawless English of the journal, and wondered if Karim could have written it, but today thousands of foreign students his age come to study in England with limited English, and within three or four years are writing research dissertations in the language. Karim had some English even while in India. He worked closely with an English superintendent, and was given a crash course before he left for England. Victoria arranged private tuition for him, and considered he was ‘learning wonderfully’. He lived more than 10 years in a totally English-speaking environment.

A still from the film, showing Judi Dench (l) as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as Abdul
A still from the film, showing Judi Dench (l) as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as Abdul

Since Basu’s book caught the eye not only of the British reading public, but of Frears, Abdul’s story can no longer be ignored. Much of the discussion of his relationship with Victoria has centred on whether there was anything romantic about it, and on his character. She often signed her letters to him, ‘Your loving mother’, and gave him practical advice about how to successfully impregnate his wife, so certainly this was not a conventional romantic relationship.

What was in her heart? Just as with John Brown, another devoted servant, a century later it is impossible to tell. Perhaps, lonely and passionate woman that she was, she did not know herself: Judi Dench’s interpretation in the film is delicate, powerful and beautiful.

As for the character of Abdul, equally well played by the Indian actor Ali Fazal, writers disagree sharply. While Dhondy is harsh, finding him totally dislikeable, Basu, who seems to have read every word of his available, is far more kindly disposed. Abdul is accused, for example, of having depicted his father as a ‘glamorous surgeon general’, but Victoria’s diary says, ‘He tells me his father is a native doctor.’ His father was a hakim; at that time this would have involved both training and certification in the indigenous system.

What rich English aristocrats called his greed would be seen very differently in an Indian cultural context. He had asked the queen for a large estate of his own, for when he returned to India. Since he must have been known throughout Agra as the local boy who had been private teacher to the imperial queen, to come back to genteel poverty would have been a humiliation, especially after the grand style that he was accustomed to in England, where Victoria had given him three properties for his use.

The granting of a jaagir (estate) was a traditional acknowledgment of loyalty, practised by Mughal and British rulers alike. And there is something farcical in this accusation of greed by the compatriots of Clive and the East India Company, thousands of whom stripped and ravaged the economy and the treasures of India to enrich not just their country but themselves.

The story of Basu’s research is as interesting as that of Victoria and Abdul

Another charge is that Lord Elgin took umbrage at Abdul’s presumption in sending him a Christmas card with a salutation written in poetry, well illustrating deliberate British ignorance of the etiquette and manners of the Urdu-speaking classes. Abdul is also blamed for seeking a pension for his father from the queen, but it is seldom mentioned that he also requested a promotion for the English superintendent he had worked under.

When all else failed, Abdul was accused of spying because of his friendship with Rafiuddin Ahmad, an Indian barrister who was politically active. Not only did years of surveillance find nothing, Rafiuddin was later an elected representative and minister in British India, and was knighted in 1932.

Ten years of sustained and overwhelming hostility, rudeness and ignorant racism is certainly likely to have made Abdul touchy, and seemingly arrogant. Yet according to Basu’s documentation, his own writings, and even the Prince of Wales, who met him in India later, Abdul maintained his loyalty and devotion to the end of his life. Some modern readers and viewers find his subservience to the Queen disgusting, but in the Indian subcontinent, loyalty to those whose salt you have eaten is a far older virtue than rebelling against a foreign monarch.

Victoria recorded in her diary that on arrival in England, the Indians ‘kissed her feet’, which she liked very much, and which would have been very unusual for Muslims at that time. This speaks not just of India’s composite Hindu-Muslim identity, but also of loyalty to this monarch having already being ingrained in this young man.

Quite possibly, catapulted into favour and high living, Abdul’s head was turned.  Much was made of his high living and the fact that he had a sexually-transmitted disease, a common enough hazard for people with less puritanical ideas than the Victorians. But though 24 and from a modest background, he was by no means a ‘lower class servant’, as English aristocrats claimed. He was educated in Urdu, Persian, Arabic, and probably Hindi as well as English. He had taught at least two languages, he was probably literate in five, and knew two cultures intimately. Despite this, in a 2012 documentary a modern descendant of a bygone Viceroy questions, in the most patronising terms, whether Abdul ‘could read’. Presumably he meant, read English.

His family might have fallen on hard times, as many Indians did after 1857, especially Muslims, but his father was a hakim when barely 10 per cent of the population was literate. Even his wife was educated. According to Basu, she kept a journal, and hoped to get it published, a project in which Abdul supported her. As a Muslim, he was aware of the basics of Christianity and of the shared religious heritage. In many ways, he was far superior to most of the Queen’s establishment, yet he was never accepted even as an equal.

In the Indian subcontinent, loyalty to those whose salt you have eaten is a far older virtue than rebelling against a foreign monarch

In the end, the far larger issue is not how exactly Victoria loved Abdul, nor whether Abdul was a loyal and ambitious man or a manipulative and greedy one, but that every single member of the British establishment, from the Crown Prince to Prime Ministers, from the queen’s doctor to her lords and ladies in waiting, mutinied en masse against the favour shown to Abdul by Victoria.

The queen herself accused them all of being racist bigots. Like many who consider themselves above questions of race, she may have had no racial prejudices. She loved Abdul and his family. She adopted Duleep Singh, Ranjit’s son, and was entranced by the style and sparkle of visiting Indian princes and princesses, many of whom spoke English fluently.

Yet Victoria presided over some of the very worst excesses of the British empire. What comes through vividly is her total ignorance about India, which perfectly suited British administrators there. Abdul offered her an alternative viewpoint, and if his Muslim prejudices swayed her against the Hindus, this was also because she knew no better.

The real story behind Victoria and Abdul is of the wilful ignorance, myths and machinations of the British empire in India. And in the discussion surrounding the book and the film today, this story is still being played out. As William Dalrymple says, the study of imperialism is as much about the present as the past.


Yameema Mitha, a journalist, activist and educationist in Pakistan, is pursuing a PhD in Politics and Culture at Dublin City University. She has studied linguistic nationalisms and the medium of instruction in post-colonial societies. Her major interests are north Indian classical music, theatre, and Indian cinema.

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