Of masters, slaves and scandals
Every now and then you can come across a book that is so startling that it changes your view of the world. I found such a book this week. It is one of the great love stories of all time and it concerns Queen Victoria, Empress of India, and a humble Muslim man from Agra, Hafiz Abdul Karim.
It is a story that has been concealed, only hinted at, for more than a century. It is a story that had social and political implications. It is a story that illuminates how the British Empire functioned at its peak. But above all, it is an intensely human story about a love affair that lasted 14 years between a woman and man 44 years younger than her.
They triumphed over the opposition of politicians, the Royal Court, the Queen’s advisers, Viceroys of India and the Queen’s family. (At one stage her family considered whether they should have her declared insane, and on her death burned many of her letters to Abdul and, in effect, had him deported back to India. The fullest account to date of this amazing story is told by Shrabani Basu, an Indian author and journalist based in London. Her book, “Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant” is the result of years of research and a tracking down of new sources of information.
Adbul came into Victoria’s life at the time of the Golden Jubilee. He had a humble background — his family worked at Agra jail — and he had been chosen as a servant to help out during the festivities in Britain. But his position at court soon changed. The Queen decided that she wanted to learn Urdu and that Abdul would be her teacher, her “munshi”. They met daily and he became devoted to her and she to him. She lavished gifts and decorations and property on him, some quite substantial. She gave him 400 acres of land in the Agra region, much to the dismay of the Viceroy who felt that bypassing the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for India in this manner was not justified. The Queen ignored him.
She began to bombard various Viceroys with letters suggesting how India should be run. Whatever the Queen and Abdul discussed today, would be in a letter to the Viceroy tomorrow. All this seriously worried the Palace. Curry was on the menu at whichever palace the Queen was staying at — to the horror of the Royal chefs. Palace rooms were stuffed with Indian valuables and artifacts. Royal courtiers were ignored in favour of Abdul. They tried a protest strike, and sent one of their numbers to the Queen to announce that if she took Abdul on her Diamond Jubilee tour of Europe they would not be going.
Victoria was so angry she swept the contents of a table in front of her crashing to the ground. The courtier fled, the strike collapsed, and Abdul accompanied the Queen on her European tour.
How intimate was the relationship? There are clues: little, personal notes in the Urdu homework Abdul set the Queen; emphasis on love poems in Urdu. But for me the clinching piece of evidence is a letter from Victoria to Abdul that has survived.
Abdul’s wife came from India to join him. Victoria was disturbed to find that the wife was childless and wrote to Abdul a letter setting out in intimate detail how he should go about getting her pregnant.
After Abdul was deported to India he seemed to fade away and died four years later. He was only in his forties. Why should their love story be resurrected now? Because it is all part of the rich history that the two nations share.
Phillip Knightley is a veteran London-based journalist and commentator. For feedback, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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