I added Shrabani Basu’s Victoria and Abdul to my TBR last year after seeing the previews for the Judy Dench film of the same name and becoming intrigued by the relationship between the Indian and the Queen of England. Coincidentally I found a copy on Overdrive at the same time the film showed up on HBO making it the perfect The Book Was Better bingo book. Especially since the book really was better than the film.
Abdul Karim was a clerk at the county jail in Agra, India when he was requested to serve Queen Victoria, Empress of India, at her Golden Jubilee. Queen Victoria took an instant liking to her new Muslim servant and within a year had promoted him from servant to the Queen’s teacher or Munshi. Despite being too frail to travel to India Queen Victoria was fascinated by India and Karim’s stories about his homeland. She especially related to the story of the Taj Mahal. Victoria requested Hindustani lessons from Karim eventually filling eleven journals with their lessons.
Victoria gave her Munshi numerous accolades including making him a member of the Royal Victorian Order on her 80th birthday. Everyone else in the royal house, including the Queen’s son Bertie, hated the Munshi and resented his close relationship with Queen Victoria. The Queen was well aware of the hostilities surrounding her Munshi so she procured a large plot of land in India to provide an income for Karim after her death. She also gave him houses at each of her estates so his wife could join him in England. She took an immediate interest in the Munshi’s wife, particularly her inability to bear any children, and had her personal doctor examine the couple. It was discovered her beloved Munshi was riddled with Gonorrhea and they never produced children.
“The Queen’s family never understood that he had provided her with the companionship over the last decade of her life, which they themselves had not been able to offer.”
It is clear that, while Karim was definitely a bit of a social ladder climber, the unlikely pair had a genuine bond with one another. Victoria had lived a life of heartbreak, losing her beloved Prince Albert several decades prior followed by the death of her Scottish gillie, and presumed romantic interest, John Brown a few years earlier. While Basu doesn’t find any proof the Munshi and Queen had a romantic relationship they certainly had an unparalleled bond.
Basu was able to find numerous records of the close, personal relationship between Karim and Victoria despite their correspondence being burned following Victoria’s death in 1901. Not only was all their correspondence destroyed following Victoria’s death but the Munshi was also immediately banished from England and sent back to India. He died eight years after his beloved empress when he was only 46 years old.