08 March 2010

Victoria & Abdul by Shrabani Basu

The Munshi the Empress relied on
In 1887, the United Kingdom and the British Empire celebrated Queen Victoria’s 50th year as Queen. Just a few months before the celebrations began she had proclaimed herself Empress of India. To establish herself in the eyes of the world as truly deserving of this title, and to show Britain’s dominance over India, it was decided that she would have a contingent of Indian staff in full dress present at the celebrations to wait on her. Accordingly, a group of young men was selected by her representatives around the country and sent for training at the court some months before the Jubilee. One of these was Abdul Karim, an Assistant Clerk at the Agra Central Jail and the son of a hospital assistant who had worked in various cantonment towns in North India.

This book is the story of Abdul and Queen Victoria and the close relationship that developed between them. It was Abdul who cooked his Empress her first Indian meal and over a period of time it was he who gave her lessons in “Hindustani” so that she could converse with and write to her Indian subjects. As with the favourite of any powerful person, Abdul was the focus of much jealousy and intrigue.
Abdul & Victoria is well written and well presented. While telling about Abdul and Victoria it gives glimpses of court life, the values and preoccupations of the times, and the skill, pride and commitment with which Britain administrated the Jewel in its Crown. It also shows Queen Victoria as a normal, vulnerable human being – a doting mother and lonely old widow.
Through old letters and newspaper reports Shrabani Basu brings this period of history alive and focuses on a fascinating relationship that in its time created turmoil in two countries; a turmoil that has long been forgotten and can now be examined as a curiosity.

I found it particularly interesting to read the descriptions of Indian royalty visiting Britain and the sensation they created among the locals. I was also impressed with the way suspense built up in the course of the book as Abdul became dearer and dearer to the Queen and subsequently richer and more powerful and more and more hated by his colleagues, and the big question of how he would be treated after she died arose. To find out what did happen, read this excellent book yourself!
Two last things: this book is a movie waiting to be made and there has to be a modern-day Merchant Ivory who could do it justice – I can’t wait. And, finally, Rupa Publishers has outdone itself in carelessness: a label at the back indicates that this carefully-researched book is “Fiction”.

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