Authors: Shrabani Basu
As the January mist enveloped Osborne House, a short line of mourners passed silently through the grounds towards Queen Victoria’s private apartments. In the corridor outside her rooms a tall Indian man stood alone. It was Abdul Karim, the Queen’s Indian Munshi or teacher. He had been waiting there since morning, his eyes occasionally looking out across the garden where he had spent so many hours with the Queen. In the distance, the ships in the Solent bobbed silently, their flags at half-mast.
The eighty-one-year-old Victoria had died peacefully in her sleep three days earlier, her family beside her. She was now dressed according to her wishes for this final journey to Windsor. The Royal family had been summoned to say their last farewells. The Queen lay in her coffin, her face covered by her white wedding veil. She looked, as one witness described, ‘like a lovely marble statue, no sign of illness or age’, regal in death as she had been in life. A bunch of white lilies was placed in her hand. The procession filed past – her son and heir Edward VII and his wife Queen Alexandra, the Queen’s children and grandchildren, together with a collection of her most trusted servants and Household members. Each stood for a few moments before the coffin of the woman who had ascended the throne at the age of eighteen and proceeded to define an age. The King then allowed Abdul Karim to enter the Queen’s bedroom. He would be the last person to see her body alone.
The Munshi entered, his head bowed, dressed in a dark Indian tunic and turban. His presence filled the room. The King, knowing his mother’s wishes, allowed him a few moments alone with her. The Munshi’s face was a map of emotion as he gazed at his dead Queen, her face lit by the softly glowing candles. She had given him – a humble servant – more than a decade of unquestioned love and respect. His thoughts raced through the years spent in her company: their first meeting when he had stooped to kiss
her feet at Windsor in the summer of 1887; the lazy days spent together as he taught her his language and described his country; the gossip and companionship they shared; her generosity to him; her loneliness that he understood. Above all, her stubborn defence of him at all times. He touched his hand to his heart and stood silently, fighting back tears. His lips mouthed a silent prayer to
to rest her soul. After a final look and bow he left the room slowly as two workmen closed and sealed the Queen’s coffin behind him.
At her funeral procession in Windsor, Abdul Karim walked with the principal mourners. The elderly Queen had given this instruction herself, despite what she knew would be intense opposition from her family and Household. She had ensured her beloved Munshi would be written into the history books.
But only days after the Queen’s death, the Munshi was woken by the sound of loud banging on his door. Princess Beatrice, Queen Alexandra and some guards stood outside. The King had ordered a raid on his house, demanding he hand over all the letters Victoria had written to him. The Munshi, his wife and his nephew watched in horror as the letters in the late Queen’s distinctive handwriting were torn from his desk and cast into a bonfire outside Frogmore Cottage.
As the ‘Dear Abdul’ letters burnt in the cold February air, the Munshi stood in silence. Without his Queen he was defenceless and alone. Postcards and letters from the Queen, dated from Windsor Castle, Balmoral, the Royal yacht
Victoria and Albert
and hotels across Europe, crackled in the flames. The Queen used to write to the Munshi every day, signing her letters variously as ‘your dearest friend’, ‘your true friend’, even ‘your dearest mother’. The Munshi’s distraught wife sobbed beside him, tears streaming down her veiled face. The nephew looked frightened as he was ordered to bring out every scrap of paper from the Munshi’s desk with the Queen’s seal on it and confine it to the mercy of the guards. The Munshi’s family, once so essential to the Royal Court, stood bewildered, treated like common criminals. With Queen Victoria in her grave, the Establishment had come down hard and fast on the Munshi. King Edward VII asked him unceremoniously to pack his bags and return to India.
The fairytale – that had begun the day the young Abdul Karim had entered the Court in 1887 – was over.
Karim had been a gift from India to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Strikingly dressed in a scarlet tunic and white turban, the handsome twenty-four-year-old youth had arrived from Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal – the world’s most beautiful monument to love. Initially a servant waiting at the Queen’s table, his rise through the ranks was swift. Within months he was cooking the Queen curries and, soon after, became her teacher or ‘Munshi’. Whilst his colleague from India, Mohammed Buksh, remained a waiter, Karim eventually became the Queen’s highly decorated Indian secretary. He was also the lonely monarch’s closest confidant, filling the shoes of John Brown, her trusted Scottish gillie, who had died four years earlier.
If the Royal Household had hated Brown, they abhorred Karim, deeply suspicious of his influence over the Queen. These fears were strengthened by the increasingly violent calls for Indian independence that were filtering through to Court. But the Queen cared little for what others thought. She defended her ‘Dear Munshi’ relentlessly, handing him cottages in Windsor, Balmoral and Osborne and extensive lands in India. She insisted that he be treated on a par with the rest of her Household and had his portrait painted by the artists Swoboda and Angeli. She even allowed him to carry a sword and wear his medals at Court. She fussed endlessly about Karim’s welfare, gave him permission to bring his wife and family to England and praised him to her family and ministers. Throughout the last ten years of her life, Victoria stood like a rock by his side.
And the more the Household complained about Karim, the more fiercely the Queen defended him, seeming to delight in her verbal spats with them over the Munshi. She went out of her way to protect Karim from any of her Household’s racism. At a time when the Empire was at its height, a young Muslim now occupied a central position of influence over its sovereign. On a visit to Italy, Karim was mistaken for a young Prince with whom the Queen was in love, so majestic did he look as he rode in his private carriage through Florence.
What was it about the Munshi that attracted the Queen? Was he a soulmate for this lonely, heartbroken, elderly woman, someone who understood her and to whom she could relate?
Given the current climate towards Muslims in the West, that a Muslim should have played such a key role in Queen Victoria’s Court is all the more intriguing and relevant. Did the Queen represent a more enlightened and tolerant attitude, even at the peak of her Empire? Were the dawn raids on Abdul Karim’s house after her death a precursor of things to come?
These and a hundred other questions entered my mind as I took the ferry across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, where I had first discovered the mysterious Abdul Karim.
He had looked out at me from his portrait painted by Rudolph Swoboda that hangs in the Indian corridor at Osborne House. I had gone to Osborne in the centenary of Queen Victoria’s death in 2001 to see the restored Durbar Room whilst researching Queen Victoria’s love for curry for an earlier book. What unfolded before me was her affection for the man who had introduced her to curry.
Abdul Karim was painted in cream, red and gold by the Austrian artist. The portrait showed a handsome young man in a reflective mood, holding a book in his hand. He looked more like a nawab than a servant. The artist seemed to have captured the Queen’s romantic vision of the subject. I learned later that Queen Victoria had loved the painting so much she had copied it herself.
Along the Indian corridor of Osborne House were portraits of Indian craftsmen, specially commissioned by the Queen. Weavers, blacksmiths and musicians stared back from the walls, all meticulously painted so the Queen could glimpse the ordinary people of India. The striking life-size portrait of Maharajah Duleep Singh painted by Winterhalter stood out amongst the canvases. It captured the Queen’s fascination for the young boy who had presented her with the Koh-i-Noor – one of the world’s largest diamonds and still a part of the Crown Jewels – when the British had defeated the Sikhs and annexed the Punjab after the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1849.
The Durbar Room, restored by English Heritage to mark the centenary of the Queen’s death, had its own revelations. The room spoke to me of the Queen’s love for India, the country she knew she could never visit, but which fascinated and intrigued
her. If the Queen could not travel to India, then she would bring India to Osborne. The marble ceilings, the intricate carvings, the balconies with their Indian-style
work were the Queen’s Indian haven. Here she sat as Empress of that faraway land to sense its atmosphere. Fittingly, it was at her beloved Osborne, with its collection of Indian antiquities, that she had died. Was her love for Abdul an extension of her love for India and the Empire, her way of touching the Jewel in the Crown?
Five years after my visit to Osborne House, I found myself tracing Abdul Karim’s past in his home town of Agra, city of the Taj. My good-natured young Sikh driver, Babloo, looked like a taller version of England cricketer Monty Panesar, although he fancied himself more as Formula 1 racer Michael Schumacher than the gentle leftarm spinner from Northamptonshire. He had driven me down from Delhi in three hours, speeding along the three-lane expressways that have been built over the last few years as proud symbols of India’s march to globalisation. Soon we were bumping along the narrow roads of Agra, past internet cafes, Kodak instant photo shops and electrical outlets stacked high with frost-free refrigerators and washing machines; material evidence of India’s burgeoning middle class and hunger for consumerism.
I was meeting a local journalist, Syed Raju, a wiry man in white Nike trainers, who spoke endlessly on his mobile phone and clutched two small notebooks. Political dignitaries and Bollywood film stars visiting the Taj provided his more glamorous assignments, but he had never heard of Abdul Karim and knew nothing of a place called Karim Lodge. After two days, there was still nothing. The family may have left for Pakistan, he said. Perhaps Abdul Karim died there. I could find nobody in Agra that knew anything about him.
I told him that Karim had died in Agra in 1909 and would have been buried in the city. Given his position, he would surely have had a prominent gravestone, I suggested, mentally preparing to comb the burial grounds of Agra searching for his grave and to knock at every mosque to ask for information. By evening we were in luck. Raju had found a lead. He knew another journalist who had recognised the name. He wrote historical articles in a
local Agra newspaper. That night we drove to the offices of the
, one of the highest circulated Hindi newspapers in India, recently acquired by the Irish millionaire, Tony O’Reilly, proprietor of
Skirting the bales of newsprint lying near the entrance, we went up some narrow winding stairs to the editorial offices where computers whirred in the small, dimly lit newsroom. A man with a peppered grey beard met us. He was Rajiv Saxena, the newspaper’s chief sub-editor. His bearded face broke into a welcoming smile.