Abdul was brought to England as a servant in 1887, but within a year Victoria had promoted him to ‘Munshi’, or teacher. Basu says: ‘The burning of letters is never a good starting point for a researcher, but over the next four years I managed to piece together the story.’ The author got access to journals Victoria wrote in Hindustani, having been taught the language by Abdul. ‘Few knew that the elderly Queen had learnt the language and kept a diary for 13 years,’ said Basu. ‘These had never been translated. They brought the relationship alive before my eyes.’
However, their close friendship provoked envy within Royal circles. Just hours after Victoria’s funeral, a party led by Edward VII’s wife, Queen Alexandra, and Victoria’s daughter Beatrice confiscated Abdul’s letters. Abdul was banished and died eight years later, a broken man.
Abdul Karim was one of Queen Victoria's closest confidants despite efforts by royal circles to suppress their relationship before and after her death.
She was the Queen of the British Empire. He was a young servant from India. Here, the author of the book behind a remarkable new film starring Judi Dench reveals the truth about a relationship that scandalised the Royal Household ... and ended in lonely ignominy.
Barely hours after Queen Victoria’s funeral at Windsor Castle in February 1901, a small group of people could be seen making their way through the dawn mist to a house in the grounds. They were Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII; Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter; and several tough-looking guards. The Royal party was heading for Frogmore Cottage, the home of Abdul Karim, the Queen’s ‘Munshi’, or teacher. They were on a mission. For 13 years Queen Victoria had taken the young Indian to heart, giving him land, houses, titles and her unquestioning love. Now was their chance to get back at him. They banged loudly on Abdul’s door, waking up the sleeping family.
Within moments they had stormed into his house, violating his space. His wife ran in panic to put on her burka as the guards entered. The Queen demanded that all the letters Victoria had written to Karim be handed over. As he pleaded with them, they tore open the drawers in his study, removing letters and correspondence. They ordered his terrified 12-year-old nephew to find more letters, piled them up outside the cottage and lit a bonfire. As the ‘Dear Abdul’ letters burnt in the cold February air, the guards went back for more. Postcards and notes were seized and thrown into the blazing fire. Abdul’s distraught wife wept as the black-lined notepaper, covered with the late Queen’s handwriting, crackled in the flames. She begged them to stop. Abdul stood near the fire, fighting back his tears, watching as the flames curled around Victoria’s signature and turned it to ash.
Victoria used to write to Abdul several times a day, signing her letters variously as ‘your dearest friend’, ‘your true friend’, and even, ‘your dearest mother’. She would put little crosses after her signature. Sometimes, she would sign in Urdu, at other times it was just her initials: ‘VRI’. There were letters written to him from Windsor, Balmoral, Osborne House – her holiday home on the Isle of Wight – the Royal yacht Victoria & Albert and hotels across Europe. Soon, everything was consumed in the flames. The next day, King Edward asked Karim to pack his bags and return to India; he wanted Karim erased from history. The fairy tale that had begun 13 years earlier was over.
Abdul Karim had intrigued me ever since I’d seen his portrait in the Indian corridor of Osborne House. I knew that Victoria enjoyed curries and that she had some Indian servants who cooked for her. The portrait, painted by the Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda, showed a handsome young man in a reflective mood, holding a book in his hand. He looked more like a nawab (nobleman) than a servant. In Victoria’s dressing room at Osborne were framed photographs of John Brown, her Scottish gillie, and Karim hanging one below the other. The guide told me they had always been there, placed by the Queen herself. It was gradually becoming clear to me that Karim was someone as special to the Queen as Brown had been. The elaborately carved Durbar Room at Osborne showed Victoria’s love of India.
The burning of letters is never a good starting point for a researcher, but over the next four years I managed to piece together the story. I read Victoria’s journals in Windsor Castle and pored through her Hindustani Journals. Few people knew that the elderly Queen had learnt to read and write in Urdu from Abdul and kept a diary for 13 years. These had never been translated.
They brought the relationship alive before my eyes. A few letters written by Victoria to Abdul had miraculously survived the bonfire and were kept at the Royal Archives. I read the personal diaries of her physician, Sir James Reid, the letters of members of the Royal Household, the Viceroys of India and the letters of Queen Victoria to all her officials. It was clear that Karim was causing considerable tension in court. I felt I needed to know more about him. I needed to go to his home city, Agra.
No one had heard of Karim when I visited Agra in the winter of 2006. Yet he had once been an important person. I was sure he would have a large gravestone. With the help of a local journalist, we found the grave after three days. It was in a neglected burial ground, overrun with stray dogs and bramble, with an elderly caretaker in charge. Once it had been grand and embedded with precious stones. Over the years, these had all been looted. Carved on the headstone were words of praise for the man who had become the Queen’s Munshi (teacher). All the honours and titles bestowed on him were listed. The place was desolate, forgotten by time. More than ever, I felt I had to tell his story.
I found the house built on the land that Victoria had given Karim in a prime area of Agra. A Hindu family was living there. I was told that Karim’s family had left India after Partition and independence in 1947 and gone to Pakistan. Karim had no children and the trail had gone cold.
Undaunted, I published my book about him, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story Of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, in 2010, knowing that someone would contact me once the story was out. Within a month I received a call. It was from the grand-nephew of Karim, who lived in India. He told me that Abdul’s diary was with the family in Karachi. I took the next flight to Pakistan and could barely breathe as the family handed me the journal filled with Karim’s familiar handwriting. At last, I had his voice. His remarkable story could now finally be told.
Working Title, the team behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, has now turned this story into a film, and this September sees Dame Judi Dench starring in the role of Queen Victoria alongside Eddie Izzard and Michael Gambon, with Bollywood actor Ali Fazal playing Abdul Karim.
The film begins – much as the book does – in 1887, when Queen Victoria was celebrating her Golden Jubilee, the longest-reigning monarch of her time. The Empire was at its height, stretching across nearly one-fifth of the globe. The British authorities thought it would be a good idea to invite some Indian princes to the celebrations. At her party the Empire would be on display before the world. The Queen expressed the wish that she would like some Indian servants as well. And so it was that two Indians, Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh, were sent to the Queen as Jubilee presents. Their job was to stand behind her, waiting at table.
Strikingly dressed in a scarlet tunic and white turban, the young and handsome Karim made an immediate impression on the Queen as he kissed her feet and presented her with a gold mohur (Mughal coin). The 24-year-old had arrived from Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, the world’s most beautiful monument to love. The Queen wanted to know more. She gave instructions that Karim should have extra English lessons so she could have longer conversations with him.
Karim told the Queen that he had been a clerk in an Agra jail and had never done menial jobs. He wrote to the Queen that he wanted to return to Agra, but she begged him to stay, saying she so enjoyed his company. The youth from Agra gradually started telling Victoria about his country, the customs and festivals, and his wife and family. Soon he was helping her with her letters. The Queen wanted to learn Hindustani and asked Karim to teach her. He gave her a pocket-sized phrase book in Hindustani, which she carried around all the time. She began filling the first of the 13 volumes of her Hindustani Journals.
One day Karim carried his spice box to the royal kitchen and cooked the Queen a curry. She was instantly won over. Victoria pronounced the curry to be ‘excellent’ and ordered that curries were to be cooked every day and served for lunch. Victoria’s favourites were chicken curry and dal.
As Karim spoke to her in his soft voice, describing Agra and the beauty of the Taj Mahal, Victoria was entranced. Karim’s tales were as sad as they were beautiful and the Queen travelled with him in this Mughal wonderland experiencing India like she had never done before.
Within a year of Karim’s arrival at court, the Queen decided to promote him. She made him her teacher and Indian secretary and gave him the title of Munshi. All photos of Karim waiting at table were destroyed and the household was instructed to address him formally as the Munshi. She had his portraits painted by the Austrian court artists, Rudolph Swoboda and Heinrich von Angeli, and missed him terribly when he went on leave to India.
The Queen gave him houses in Windsor and Osborne and built a cottage for him in Balmoral, named Karim Cottage. On the Royal train, the Munshi was given a private carriage next to the Queen. She took him away to the remote cottage in Glassalt Shiel on Loch Muick in Scotland, a place she had often visited with John Brown, and where she had sworn she would never go after his death, fuelling gossip in the household.
The Queen sensed that her family and household would come down heavily on Karim after her death and she wanted to provide for him. She wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne, asking him to give a large grant of land to Karim. When Karim asked for a pension for his father, who had served the British loyally for nearly 40 years, the Queen immediately wrote to the Viceroy about it. Karim’s father was invited to England, taken on a tour of the hospitals of Edinburgh, and was the only person allowed to smoke a hookah (water-pipe) in Windsor.
The incensed Royal Household began to plot against Karim. A whispering campaign was started that implied he was a spy, and when Karim travelled to India, he was followed by intelligence officers.
BRINGING THE MUNSHI TO THE BIG SCREEN
Shrabani Basu’s remarkable story of Queen Victoria’s scandalous friendship with Abdul will be brought to life on the big screen by the BBC and Working Title, the award-winning British production team behind Billy Elliot and Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Judi Dench reprises her role as Queen Victoria, who she famously portrayed in the 1997 film Mrs Brown, with Ali Fazal as Abdul, and a who’s who of big British stars.
Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons and High Fidelity), who was Oscarnominated for his 2006 film The Queen, about our current reigning monarch, was able to film in some of the story’s original settings, including Durbar Hall and the Indian Corridor in Queen Victoria’s holiday home on the Isle of Wight, Osborne House.
The dining hall at Windsor Castle was recreated at Greenwich’s Royal Naval College. The producers also filmed in the Indian city of Agra, using a local college to stand in as the central jail, and a team of 40 tailors used images from the British library to ensure the period designs were accurate, right down to the last gold thread.
This review was first published on http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4721648/The-tragic-truth-Queen-Victoria.html to which credit is made.