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Victoria & Abdul Paperback – September 1, 2015
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About the Author
Shrabani Basu was born in Kolkata and grew up in Dhaka, Kathmandu and Delhi. She moved to London in 1987and is a correspondent for the Kolkata-based newspapers Ananda Bazar Patrika and The Telegraph. She is the author of Curry: The Story of the Nation's Favourite Dish and the critically acclaimed biography Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan.
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The book is clearly and concisely written, and sets out the history and the supporting evidence in an easy to follow logical manner. The writer is very balanced and does present the full story, including details about the opposition to the unlikely friendship. This was a quick and interesting read, and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in the Victorian era, or Royal History.
The book is somewhat long and the detail becomes a little repetitive but the author certainly covers the ground meticulously. I would recommend it to anyone keen to fill in more detail about the life and times of a great historical figure.
The author Shrabani Basu has obviously researched the topic, in depth and her work has paid off. This book is quite capturing and gives a wonderful look into the personality of Queen Victoria, as well as, the amazing rise and fall of Abdul Karim's social status and power.
In 1887, Queen Victoria requested for some Indian servants to be on attendance as she expected many of the Indian Royals for her Jubilee Celebrations. Along with Abdul, another servant Muhammed Buksh came. However, as soon as Queen Victoria saw Abdul, she was almost in awe of him. Almost immediately, he was singles out to become her Hindustani (Urdu) tutor and as he must have hardly known English, he was given tuition for that.
From being a hand help, he started doing secretarial jobs and soon afterwards became known as The Munshi.
Prior to Abdul coming to England, the Queen had a servant, John Brown, with whom she was extremely close. There have been strong suggestions throughout history that they may have had a sexual relationship and might have married secretly, as well. As would have been obvious, the Household disliked him. He was a rude, course man but was completely devoted to the Queen. Unfortunately for her, John Brown died in 1883 and left a void in her heart which seemed to heal after Abdul's arrival.
The household became jealous of Abdul's position and they all tried desperately to open the Queen's eyes to his faults. But no matter how hard they tried, she was completely blinded by Abdul.
Abdul was obvious of the power he held over the Queen and in fact, he took advantage of his position. In 1890, only 3 years after his arrival, the Queen became determined to grant the 'Munshi' a generous amount of land in his home town Agra. In order to achieve this , she began a long drawn out communication with the Viceroy of India - Lord Landsdowne, and the secretary of state for India, Lord Cross. It was to the point of harassment for the 2 gentlemen. Her purpose was to ensure that Karim and his family would be comfortable after her death. Finally, the land grant was given and his father was given a title equivalent to the Knighthood, i.e. 'Khan Bahadur'.
In 1894, The 'Munshi' had further climbed the social ladder. When the Queen travelled, he was never placed with the Indian servants. In Europe, he was given his own carriage with a footman on board. By now, his wife and mother in law were also in England and every time there were female visitors for the Queen for the Queen , she made it a point that they must also call upon the Munshi's wife , which further enhanced his social status.
Abdul Karim was decorated with many medals and honours. He was given the CIE ( Companion of the Indian Empire) and the CVO ( Companion of the Royal Victorian Order) despite much outcry from the Royal Household.There must have been prejudice against him as well. Indians were still looked down upon by the British. Yet, he was further given a few cottages and homes in England.
Not only was Abdul unaffected by all the ill well directed at him, he became extremely arrogant and made it a point to correct media reports whenever he was referred to as a servant. And he made it a point that he was mentioned specifically, in the Queen's entourage, with his full decorations.
After the Queen's death in 1901, as per her wishes, after her family and members of the household, the Munshi was allowed to spend a moment alone with his Queen. He was the last person to see her alone. He was given the further privilege of walking in her funeral procession along with her family.
Those were the last of the privileges seen by Abdul, as the new King - Edward VII, sent him back to Agra after burning whatever correspondence they found between Abdul and the Queen.
In 1909, at the age of 46, Abdul Karim passed away childless. He had spent the last few years of his life comfortably in Agra, near the lands granted to him by the Queen. It must have been hard after all the power he had held back in England.
I found this book absolutely fascinating and not to be missed if one likes historical books.
The book is a bit repetitive only because Victoria's household , the government and her family battled for ages against Abdul.