6 November 2017

Review #646: Victoria & Abdul by Shrabani Basu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you...I could walk through my garden forever.”

----Alfred Tennyson

Shrabani Basu, an Indian author has penned an honest memoir about a forgotten man who mattered the most in the life of Queen Victoria in her book called, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant. Abdul Karim was just a young man when he first met the British monarch, Queen Victoria and since that day, till the day, the queen died, their friendship stayed invaluable and that reached beyond the walls of Osborne House to Buckingham Palace to India thereby creating an uproar amongst the royals and the British Empire. Very predictably, after the death of the Queen, her family erased every single proof of the Queen and her munshi's friendship, yet somehow and mostly through hard work, dedication and by miracle, author, Shrabani Basu, has successfully resurrected the forgotten Indian Muslim man who became an integral part of Queen Victoria's life through this memoir.


Tall and handsome Abdul was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. Within a year, Abdul had grown to become a powerful figure at court, the Queen's teacher, or Munshi, her counsel on Urdu and Indian affairs, and a friend close to the Queen's heart. "I am so very fond of him.," Queen Victoria would write in 1888, "He is so good and gentle and understanding....a real comfort to me."

This marked the beginning of the most scandalous decade in Queen Victoria's long reign. Devastated first by the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and then her personal servant John Brown in 1883, Queen Victoria quickly found joy in an intense and controversial relationship with her Munshi, who traveled everywhere with her, cooked her curries and cultivated her understanding of the Indian sub-continent--a region, as Empress of India, she was long intrigued by but could never visit. The royal household roiled with resentment, but their devotion grew in defiance of all expectation and the societal pressures of their time and class and lasted until the Queen's death on January 22, 1901.

Drawn from never-before-seen first-hand documents that had been closely guarded secrets for a century, Shrabani Basu's Victoria & Abdul is a remarkable history of the last years of the 19th century in English court, an unforgettable view onto the passions of an aging Queen, and a fascinating portrayal of how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the British Empire.

To present a mohar (a golden coin commissioned by the then Indian government), Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh, two Indian clerks were summoned upon by the British Empire. Upon presenting the mohar on Queen's Golden Jubilee celebration at England, Abdul Karim instantly catches the eye of the aging, mournful and bored Queen Victoria, who along with his partner, Buksh, were immediately hired by the royal household as servants to serve the queen. Gradually, Karim rises above his pay-grade and status as a servant to be the Queen's Munshi by charming and impressing her with his deep knowledge about India, its history, religions and cultures that the Queen found to be extremely enlightening. Not only that, Karim learns to win the trust of the queen, who considered him as a close confidant amongst the English servants as well as her own family who are constantly spying upon her. Even though their friendship irked everyone in the royal household yet the Queen was hell-bound on making Munshi a permanent member of her family by inviting his wife as well as other members of Karim's family to live in the palatial complex where the Queen's previous royal servant stayed, with whom too she formed a close bond of love and friendship.

Eventually, through ups and downs and through many challenges and battles, their friendship survived and grew more strong with each passing day, until the day the Queen breathed for the last time. Immediately, the Munshi along with his family was thrown out of England and also burned all the letters and photographs that were exchanged between the two, in order to erase any proof of their friendship from the face of the world. But history and truth can't be erased, as Shrabani Basu pens this memoir with honesty and enough justice about the forgotten man who was Queen Victoria's best friend in her later years.

The author' writing style is extremely articulate and often elegant enough to peak the readers' interest all through out. The plot is not only laced with well-researched facts, but also with emotions that will strike the readers while reading about Karim's enlightening journey. The narrative in the book is light and free-flowing. The pacing is bit slow, since the author has penned the memoir with lots of depth that will let the readers form a clear perspective about the characters portrayed in this memoir, besides the Munshi.

The real life characters from the past are heavily well-researched and well developed, especially the Queen and her Munshi, who are bound to come alive right before the eyes of the readers, while they are reading the book. Also the background details of the Osborne House where the Queen resided is intricately and vividly painted through the memoir and the readers will be able to precept the background along with the scenes very easily. Since its a historical memoir based on facts and dates, the author has managed to lace this memoir with light humor now and then, to keep things thoroughly interesting and subtly funny.

The friendship that quickly developed between the Queen and her Munshi is very much well arrested by the author. Also the family life of Karim in India too is well described in the book, thereby letting the readers take a peak in to this knowledgeable man's background. Basu did a great work to keep the memory of this man safe which was forgotten by the British as well as the Indians after the death of the Queen, thereby giving a full and proper justice to this humble, well informed and handsome's life.

In a nutshell, this is a must read enlightening and poignant book that must be read by every Indians, to learn how an Indian, who were then despised by the British, won the heart of the ultimate emperor of India by narrating her the rich tales of Indian history and culture.

Verdict: A truly and deeply moving memoir of the blissful friendship between Queen Victoria and her Munshi, Abdul Karim.

Courtesy: Thanks to the publishers from Bloomsbury India for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book.

Author Info:
Shrabani Basu graduated in History from St Stephen’s College, Delhi and completed her Masters from Delhi University. In 1983, she began her career as a trainee journalist in the bustling offices of The Times of India in Bombay.
Since 1987, Basu has been the London correspondent of Ananda Bazar Patrika group --writing for "Sunday, Ananda Bazar Patrika, "and "The Telegraph."
Basu has appeared on radio and TV in the UK and founded the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust for a memorial for the Second World War heroine which was unveiled in 2012. She is the author of "Curry: The Story of the Nation's Favourite Dish," "Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan," and "Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant."
Visit her here

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