Authors: Shrabani Basu
Karim’s presence was transporting Queen Victoria into another world. The times spent with him learning Hindustani were the elderly Queen’s moments spent in India, in a different land and culture. The Queen liked the sound of Urdu, the rich language used in the Mughal Courts, a mix between Persian and the native
, and she would try to say the words after Karim. He would also tell her about India; about his own native city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and the romance of seeing it on a full-moon night. He told the Queen the story of Shah Jahan and his Queen, Mumtaz Mahal, and how the news of her death during childbirth affected the Emperor deeply. The Queen listened in rapt silence, understanding the anguish of Shah Jahan at losing his Queen. She learnt how Jahan had then built the Taj Mahal, taking twenty-two
years to create the tomb that would be an everlasting monument to love. The Queen thought of the mausoleum she had built at Frogmore for her own beloved husband and how she would one day join him there. She shuddered when she heard how the ageing Emperor was imprisoned in Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb; its position on the bend in the river providing the most enchanting view of the Taj, and how the Emperor spent his dying days there gazing at his beloved monument, and mourning his Queen.
Karim’s soft voice brought the tragic story to life. He described the splendour of the Taj Mahal, its marble dome rising towards the sky, framed by four elegant minarets in perfect symmetry. He described the inlay work with precious gemstones, the feeling of being in heaven when light filtered in through the latticed framework and fell on the two tombs, and the words of the Koran that were inscribed all around. The Queen was entranced, letting Karim take her into this Mughal paradise that was as sad as it was beautiful. As Karim gently described his homeland, India came alive before the Queen: she could see the bazaars, the colour, the crowds and almost feel the heat.
Meanwhile, at Osborne, the Indian season continued and the Queen remained surrounded by the Indian Princes and nawabs. The Maharajah of Cooch Behar, who was in the vicinity for a Jubilee Club Ball and was staying on board the
docked off the Isle of Wight, visited Osborne on 6 August and dined with her. The Queen was once again taken by his charm. ‘He looked beautiful all in white,’ she recalled, ‘a necklace of lovely emeralds and pearls round his neck and a diamond aigrette in his white
The band played beautifully that night and the Queen sat outdoors with the Maharajah and enjoyed herself immensely, describing it as ‘quite like an Italian night’. The Queen’s sense of romance and beauty would always stay with her.
A few days later, the Thakores of Morvi and Limri came to take their leave. Again the Queen noted that they were ‘beautifully dressed in white & gold and had their jewels on’.
They each presented her with their photographs, handsomely framed, and she gave them a gold Jubilee medal. Karim and Buksh served lunch. Karim was by now regularly cooking Indian curries in the kitchen at Osborne House and these were served to the visiting Indian guests. Communication with the other staff was still difficult but he was learning quickly. The Queen enjoyed serving
the elaborate Indian meals to the visitors. On 20 August she wrote: ‘Had some excellent curry made by one of my Indian servants.’
The Queen was experiencing the flavours of the East like never before. She was, after all, Empress of India,
. With her new servants waiting by her side, her family next to her and the Empire stretching over one-fifth of the globe, she felt complete. Her passage to India was only just beginning.
ne afternoon in Osborne, as the Queen was sweeping out of the Dining Room accompanied by her ladies in waiting, she stopped near Karim and gently told him: ‘Speak to me in Hindustani, speak slowly, that I may understand it, as I wish to learn.’
Watched by the critical eyes of the Household, Karim bowed and nodded. He realised just how serious his Queen was about her Hindustani lessons and knew he would have to devote even more time to them. He also felt a sense of pride that he had been chosen to be her teacher.
The few days before the Royal party moved to Balmoral were now spent in a flurry of activity, as the Queen plunged into the planning and assumed complete charge of her new servants. She wanted Karim and Buksh to be prepared for the chill of Scotland and, her maternal instincts in full flow, she issued detailed instruction about their care to James Reid, her personal physician. The Queen drew up a list of things herself. First, they would need gloves: different types, for different occasions. She requested:
6 pairs of brown kid each
6 pairs of white cotton each
3 pairs of white wool each
3 pairs of black wool each.
Total 36 pairs
The list was copied again by a member of the Household and labelled ‘Gloves requested by Hindoos’, not aware that both Karim and Buksh were Muslim.
A surprised Reid was sent a long memorandum by the Queen on 20 August 1887, titled
Rules For Scotland
The heavily underlined note captured the Queen’s excitement and eagerness as she prepared to take her Indians to the Highlands. She wrote:
Mahomet Buksh and Abdul Karim should wear in the
morning out of doors
at breakfast when they wait, their
dark blue dress and always at lunch with any ‘Pageri’ [pagri] (turban) and sash
, only not the
. The Red dress and gold and white turban and sash to be always worn
at dinner in the evening
There were also instructions on their duties:
If it is wet or cold the breakfast is
when they should of course always attend. I may take the tea indoors (and of course later on always) and they should attend. As I often,
the days get too short take the tea out with me in the carriage, they might do some extra waiting instead, either before I go out, or when I come in. Better before I go out, stopping half an hour longer and should wait
to answer a hand-bell. They should come in and out and bring boxes, letters etc:
. In the same way they would alternately or
according to the number at tea, wait at my tea
of the maids.
Knowing that Karim and Buksh came from warmer climes, the Queen worried about how they would cope with the Highland weather. She felt they should let their bodies adjust slowly to the cold and instructed them not to put on their thickest underclothes at once. She felt they could wear at breakfast ‘
if they choose
’ their own thicker clothing. Gradually, she felt ‘a warm tweed dress and trousers can be got for them at Balmoral to go about in, when off duty in their own room’. The Queen insisted, however, that it ‘must be made in Indian fashion and the Pageri always be worn’.
‘The woollen stockings and socks and gloves, as well as thick shoes for walking can be got at Balmoral,’ the Queen instructed Reid. Almost like a school matron making lists for the children coming to boarding school, the Queen covered reams of Osborne House notepaper with her instructions, underlining and emphasising certain points as was her habit to do. Reid had to write the memorandum neatly again and then hand it to Major-
General Dennehy. It was clear that the Queen was not going to leave the care of her Indian servants totally in the General’s hands.
Though she worried about them being warm and comfortable, she was also clear that she did not want them to lose their exotic touch and insisted that the Scottish tweeds be cut in the shape of Indian tunics and then worn over warm loose trousers which could replace their cotton
As the days grew colder with the approaching winter, she wanted Karim and Buksh to know that ‘tea will be taken
. And when the days become short (in seven or eight weeks or two months time) they better wait after tea to answer the bell as there will be no time after luncheon.’
The Queen was also concerned that the two Indians – uprooted as they had been from their country – should not feel lonely or isolated in England. Knowing the prejudices that existed in the Household and among her servants, she sent further notes to Reid about what carriage they should be given on the train to Balmoral:
Pray take care that my good Indian people get one of the
Upper Servants places
which Hyem [her footman] knows is their proper position and they are
put far from our saloons, also that they have every comfort so that they are warm
. They must be near. To put them at the very end would be too bad.
If there is no room Morris should go with them, otherwise he better go on 1st and someone else be specially told to look after them. I
Francie [Francie Clark, the Queen’s Highland attendant] has had no hand in the arrangement for he is very prejudiced and was not inclined to be kind.
The notes reflect the Queen’s thinking. She did not want Karim and Buksh to suffer either on account of the weather or prejudice and wanted her Household to have no doubt about the fact that the Indian servants occupied a special place in her heart. She wanted them to feel welcome in the Palace and went out of her way to learn about their culture. She was looking forward to the break in Balmoral where she would have more time to catch up with Karim and listen to his stories.
On 25 August the last of the Royal bags was packed; the final instructions given and the entourage crossed the Solent and
boarded the Royal train from Bridport in Dorset to Ballater in Scotland. The men servants were in the sleeping carriage number 870, while the Queen’s personal servants (including Karim and Buksh) and dressers were closer to the Royal saloons. The Queen shared a saloon with Princess Beatrice. Ponsonby and Reid shared a double saloon numbered 131, and the train chugged its way up to the Highlands, arriving next morning in Ballater, forty miles west of Aberdeen, to the sound of a traditional bagpipe greeting. The carriage drive from Ballater to Balmoral, winding through the purple heather-covered hills of the Highlands along the course of the River Dee, was always a pleasure for the Queen. Karim and Buksh took in their first glimpse of Scotland, watching with fascination as they drove past the scenic lochs and glens. They passed the pretty bridges over the Dee, many of which had been opened by the Queen. One of them was decorated with a banner that read ‘Ever Welcome VRI’. Karim was reminded of the hills of India where the Europeans escaped from the heat of summer.
Six hundred miles from London, Balmoral was one of the Queen’s favourite homes. Here she could not usually be disturbed by visiting dignitaries as she was at both Windsor and Osborne. The Queen had happy memories of her time with Prince Albert at Balmoral, a place she described as her ‘paradise in the Highlands’, and the journey here in late summer was always special. From her room she could enjoy the views over Lochnagar and the Grampian mountains on the left and on the right she could see the River Dee winding through the glen. She took pleasure in riding around the grounds of the castle and enjoying her tea in the summerhouse. The sound of the Dee in full spate as it flowed past the castle lulled her senses and she encouraged her children and grandchildren to walk along the banks. Her first visit to Scotland had been by sea in 1842, a rough ride by ferry from Woolwich Docks in London to Leith near Edinburgh, followed by a carriage drive through the Highlands to Balmoral. Her first sight of the Scottish coast had filled her with awe: ‘so dark, rocky, bold and wild, totally unlike our coast,’
she had remarked. In 1848 Prince Albert had purchased the castle and ever since then it had become her Highland home. Though the Queen loved to escape there, it was not a favourite with her Court and government, who found it draughty and uncomfortable. Besides, the Queen hated fires. There was no holiday atmosphere in
Balmoral and the Queen was a strict disciplinarian. No one was allowed to go out until the Queen had left. The Household often found they had nothing to do to kill time. Ponsonby went on long walks and wrote every day to his wife, Mary. Reid bore it all with his usual patience, spending a lot of time in the gardens. The days were always longer in Scotland and the Queen was worried about her Indian servants fitting into the rhythm of the Royal Household. A few days into their stay, she sent another of her pencilled instructions to Reid. She had obviously been anxious about what Karim and Buksh should do after meals.
‘It seems to me that they need not hurry away after their meals to their rooms, and may stay either in the corridor below or above, or with anyone if they like, for, from living out of the house they are out of reach.’ She continued that this problem would not arise in Osborne and Windsor as she would build rooms for them. In Osborne she was planning rooms which would communicate with the house. At Balmoral, she decided, it was better for the servants to stay after dinner so they were available if needed. The Queen was keen to see more of both Buksh and Karim and had already given them instructions to do many of the jobs previously done by her maids.