Read Victoria & Abdul Online

Authors: Shrabani Basu

Victoria & Abdul (7 page)

Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, the Maharajah of Baroda, arrived a few months later – with his wife Chimnabai. Baroda in western India, in modern-day Gujarat, was a wealthy state and the Gaekwads were a fierce and proud Maratha clan. The presence of a Maharajah of a twenty-one gun salute state added significant prestige to the Jubilee celebrations and the British had been keen to host him. The Gaekwads were as traditional as the Cooch
Behars were westernised. Though Sayaji Rao was well versed in English and spoke four languages, including Urdu, Marathi and Gujarati, he preferred to retain his traditional Indian clothes and customs. He wore heavily brocaded tunics,
angarakha
s, stitched in the western Indian cities of Ahmedabad or Surat, both famed for their textile centres. He was rarely without his trademark three-string pearls. On his head was the small cap-like turban favoured by the Maratha rulers. The enigmatic Chimnabai, an accomplished veena player, was as comfortable in the kitchen as she was hunting tigers and was an active campaigner for women’s emancipation. The family treasures included the exquisite Pearl Carpet, a silk and deer-skin carpet embellished with over 2 million pearls and studded with diamonds, emeralds and rubies with four solid gold weights in the corners. Sayaji Rao’s elephant famously had a howdah cast in solid, jewel-encrusted gold. It needed twenty-four men to lift the howdah onto the elephant’s back. At the end of the day, the elephant was given a pint of sherry.

Also boarding the steamers for England were the portly, architecture-loving Maharajah of Indore, Shivaji Rao Holkar, a state in the Central Provinces with a nineteen gun salute, and the Maharajah of Bharatpore, Jaswant Singh, a seventeen gun salute state in western India, famous for its bird sanctuary. The states with eleven gun salutes were represented by the Maharajah Bhagwatsinghji Sagramsinhji, the Thakur of Gondal, who had studied medicine at Edinburgh and was much respected by the British press; the Thakore of Limri, Jaswantsinghji Fatehsinghji, with his smartly clipped beard and turban; and the Thakore of Morvi, Lukhdirji Bahadur, who sported a neat moustache and layered turban in the Rajasthani style. The handsome young Rao of Kutch and the Nawab of Junagadh were also amongst the assembled Royalty. All the Maharajahs arrived in style with their retinue of secretaries, servants and cooks. Some brought their cows with them, others their horses. The British found them sensational.

Lord Cross and Dufferin waited anxiously as the entourage of Princes and nobility travelled across the seas to England. Pertab Singh caused a slight panic when he managed to lose his jewels on the
Tasmania
and divers had to be sent in to look for them. A relieved Lord Cross later telegraphed Dufferin: ‘Foreign office have just sent word that Pertab Singh’s jewels have been recovered.’
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All was well again for the Jubilee party.

Apart from the westernised Cooch Behars, most of the Hindu kings were reluctant to eat food prepared by English cooks. Sunity had started eating meat to practise for her trip to England, initially hating it. She spent several unhappy weeks in her London flat, unable to appreciate European food, but soon cheered up as the social whirl began in earnest.

Queen Victoria requested Sunity to call on her privately before she was formally presented to the Court. She sent instructions that the Maharani must wear her native clothes on all state occasions. For the first meeting at Buckingham Palace, Nripendra chose her gown: a pale-grey satin dress with stylish but minimal jewellery. So nervous was Sunity before the meeting that she accepted a glass of port from her maid to steady her nerves, but ended up spilling it over her gown. The Queen took an instant liking to the young Indian Maharani and immediately made her feel comfortable. Sunity was delighted with the Queen and was impressed by her ‘simple and kindly’ conversation and the way she had put her at her ease. ‘I felt eager to go back to India so that I might tell my country-women about our wonderful Empress,’
4
she wrote.

Soon Sunity was being chaperoned by Princess May, the Duchess of Teck, and being invited to dinner by the Prince of Wales. She bought her son, Rajey, a toy yacht to sail on the Serpentine and took her second son, Jit, for tea to Marlborough House with the Princess of Wales. It was the start of a long friendship between Sunity and Princess Alexandra. Sunity and her husband went to the opera, saw a production of
The Winter’s Tale
, spent a night at Windsor Castle where they were given a luxury gilt-edged bedroom, toured Edinburgh and Brighton and visited Hatfield House, where she got lost in the maze.

This Indian summer was well under way when Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh arrived at Windsor Castle, three days before the start of the Jubilee celebrations. On 18 June Dr Tyler had received a telegram saying that the Queen wished Karim and Buksh to be present at Windsor. As their carriage turned into Castle Hill they felt a sense of apprehension and excitement, looking up at the towering ramparts of their new home, so different from the familiar red sandstone forts of Agra, Delhi and Rajasthan. The Queen’s standard was fluttering in the light
breeze from the Round Tower. In the quadrangle of the castle, usually guarded by the Queen’s troops in their livery of red coats and furry bearskin hats, was a group of Indian soldiers with long, wild beards and fiercely curled moustaches, impressive turbans and gilt-edged swords, their bronzed faces reflecting the rugged climes in which they had served. Their presence made Windsor Castle look more like an Indian bazaar than a slice of Berkshire.

The twelve Indian soldiers were the Queen’s newly arrived Escort for the Jubilee celebrations. The Queen had requested an Indian Escort earlier that year to demonstrate to the attendant ranks of European Royalty her position as Empress of India. She treasured this much-coveted title, given to her in 1876, more than any other, feeling it gave her and her family a rank now equal to the Emperors of Russia and Prussia. The Jubilee was the perfect occasion to put her Empire on display and the Indian guard made an impressive sight standing behind the Queen at all significant state functions, her black mourning clothes set against their splash of colour. But their effect was more than decorative. By choosing them as her Escort – the Queen’s closest source of protection – she had placed enormous trust in her Indian subjects and elevated them before the world’s eyes.

The Escort had been selected to represent Her Majesty’s Indian Empire in its entirety. Officers were chosen from all corners of the Indian army and comprised eight from the Bengal Cavalry, two from the Bombay Cavalry and one each from Hyderabad, Madras and the Central Indian Horse. At her Jubilee, the Queen’s Empire would sparkle before the world.

Karim and Buksh stood with Dr Tyler near the dining room to await the Queen’s arrival. Soon they were to catch their first glimpse of Queen Victoria. They saw her – a commanding little figure in her mourning clothes and white veil – accompanied by the Duke of Connaught and Princess Beatrice. The Indian Escort stood to attention as she drifted past, inspecting them with a keen eye that noticed every miniscule detail of dress and comportment. As an officer bellowed a command, they extended their ornate swords for her inspection. She then moved over to talk briefly to some Indian Princes who were visiting the castle before walking towards the dining room.

As she walked up, Tyler knelt before her and Karim hastily did a salaam in oriental style. He then presented a nazar, or gift of a gold mohur, to the Queen on the palm of his hand. The Queen
touched and remitted it, and moved over to talk to Tyler. The first brief meeting was over. ‘So ended my first interview with the Empress of India,’
5
wrote Karim.

Impressed by the personality that radiated from her, Karim and Buksh grew increasingly apprehensive of their next full meeting with the Queen. That night back at Victoria Hotel, they whispered to each other in Urdu about what to expect.

The day of the Jubilee arrived, leaving the Queen in a reflective mood. ‘This very eventful day has come … I sat
alone
,’
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she sighed, her mood a stark contrast to the atmosphere of national celebration. In the gilded bedroom of Buckingham Palace, the sixty-eight-year-old Queen missed the people she had loved and lost. Victoria remained wrapped in widow’s black. Her foreign secretary, Lord Rosebery, had encouraged her to wear a crown instead of her trademark bonnet, but in vain. He had even sent her a memo the previous year, insisting: ‘The symbol that unites this vast Empire is a Crown, not a bonnet.’ But the Queen would not be moved and the bonnet stayed, its solemnity even adding to her presence.

For her Jubilee, the Queen’s black dress and bonnet were trimmed with the exquisite white point d’Alençon lace and diamonds. She wore a string of pearls round her neck and stepped out to meet the adoring crowds. Her mood lifted as she was driven from Buckingham Palace in a handsome landau drawn by six cream horses, her daughter Vicky and grand daughter Alix beside her. Her Indian Escort rode directly in front, their turbans bobbing in the morning light, drawing cheers and waves from the crowds lining the street. It was the first time the British public had seen Indian officers on the streets.

Watching from the Palace, Karim bowed to the Queen as she left for her carriage. He noted that she appeared to say something about him to the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Lathom. As the procession started moving, Karim expected that he too would be given orders to join in. When no such command came he asked Dr Tyler why he had not been asked to accompany the Queen as her ‘orderly’. Tyler assured him that he would accompany her next time, an answer that did not satisfy Karim.

Meanwhile, the Indian Princes, splendidly attired in their native clothes, assembled in their carriages at Hyde Park Corner
and rode out in a carefully co-ordinated procession to the Abbey. Sitting in the first carriage was Kunwar Hurwan Singh, Maharajah of Kapurthala, followed by the Maharajah of Bharatpore. All together, eleven carriages transported the native Princes and Indian delegations. Sunity Devi was holding a parasol, but was urged by the crowds to show her face. She obligingly folded it and smiled at the sea of waving hands. All along the royal route, people stood on the specially erected platforms cheering, many holding up banners which the Queen found ‘touching’.

The noise from the crowds faded into a hush as the Queen entered Westminster Abbey and once again she felt over whelmed by emotion. More than ever she missed her husband, who would have stood by her side on this solemn occasion. As the elderly Queen sat on the throne with her robes beautifully draped around the historic Coronation Chair, where she had been crowned as an eighteen-year-old, she felt lonely and sad. ‘I sat
alone.
Oh!
Without
my beloved husband (for whom this would have been such a fine day!) where I sat alone 49 years ago and received the homage of the Princes and Peers.’
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On her return to Buckingham Palace, the Queen presented Jubilee brooches to her daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters, and then had lunch with the Kings of Saxe Coburg, Denmark and Belgium. After lunch she watched the Blue Jackets march past and then went to the Ball Room to receive her presents; she was so exhausted by the afternoon that she was ready to faint and had to be rolled back to her room on her chair. Here she lay on the sofa and rested, opening telegrams coming from all parts of the country, too numerous to personally acknowledge anymore. A newspaper announcement of thanks, she decided, would have to suffice.

For her grand Jubilee dinner, the Queen wore a dress with the rose, thistle and shamrock embroidered in silver with large diamonds. The King of Denmark led her in and proposed the toast to her health. The Queen invited most of the Indian Princes to a reception after dinner and spent some time chatting with them, accepting their congratulations and enquiring that they were comfortable and well. The Queen had always admired the jewellery the Maharajahs wore with such ease and style. She herself always wore her biggest diamonds and pearls when she was meeting Eastern Royalty so as not to be outdone. She had once met the Shah of Persia wearing her Koh-i-Noor after
hearing that he always wore exquisite jewellery. India remained to her a place of mystery, exciting her curiosity.