By- Farida Asrar
Mississauga: For thirteen years, Queen Victoria wrote letters to Abdul Karim almost daily sometimes several letters a day in which she fondly called him “Dear good Munshi”, “Dearest Munshi” and “your closest friend”. London based author Shrabani Basu told BBC that on some occasions Queen Victoria even signed off her letter to Abdul Karim with a flurry of kisses – which was uncommon to do at the time, let alone for the Queen of England and the Commonwealth. This and many other intimate details are presented in a new book, ‘Victoria and Abdul – The true story of the Queen’s closest confidant’ by Shrabani Basu.
Abdul Karim, 24 year old, tall and handsome Muslim from Agra, India worked as a clerk at Central Jail, Agra. He was sent to England in 1887 during the Golden Jubilee celebrations to wait tables. The day Queen Victoria saw him she wrote in her journal “he is much younger, is much lighter and with a fine serious countenance”. Basu told the BBC that diaries indicated the young Muslim was contemplating leaving his job soon after his employment began because it was “too menial” but the Queen successfully persuaded him not to.
The Queen gained a fondness for all things Abdul Karim; He once cooked curry for the Queen and she loved it so much that it remained on the Royal menu daily for almost thirteen years. She also adored Urdu and asked Abdul Karim to become her Urdu teacher, taking daily lessons and conversing in Urdu with him. Queen Victoria was then able to read and write Urdu. Now Abdul Karim became her ‘Munshi’ (teacher). On November 20 1888 she had written to Sir Theodore Martin that “Munshi is an excellent, clever, truly pious and very refined gentlemen, who says ‘God Ordered it’, God’s orders is what they implicitly obey. Such faith as theirs and such conscientiousness sets us a great example”.
An original letter from the private collection of Dr. Farhan Asrar of Mississauga (see photo) written by the Queen’s private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby to the famous Orientalist Sir Stanley Lane Poole thanking him for the speeches and table talk on Prophet Muhammad he gave to the Queen, shows her keen interest to learn other religions.
I am of the firm opinion that Queen Victoria was a champion of religious harmony, human rights, minority rights and social justice. The Queen even looked after Abdul Karim when he was ill with an infectious boil on his neck. Her personal physician Dr. Reid was called to attend to him. Dr. Reid in 1890 wrote “Queen was visiting Abdul Karim twice daily in his room taking Hindustani lessons, signing her boxes, examining his neck, smoothing his pillows, etc”. He thought it was ‘Munshimania’.
Over the time that Munshi worked for the Queen she gave him cottages, expensive gifts, showered honours and medals, and allowed him to bring his wife and mother-in-law to England. By now Munshi’s lifestyle had changed and Dean Nelson describes it as “The Munshi had his own servants in the Royal Household, and by the end of 1893 the Queen had sent him a Christmas tree and given him his own horse-drawn carriage and driver”.
In one of Queen’s letters to Abdul Karim she writes “The long letter I enclose (separately) which was written nearly a month ago is entirely and solely my own idea not a human being will ever know of it or what you answer me. If you can’t read (referring to her hand-writing) I will help you and then burn it at once”. I have always wondered what she must have written to him that had to be burnt immediately after reading. The Queen continued to write about Munshi in her journals, on April 4 1889 writing about Abdul Karim’s demeanour “He is a thorough gentleman in feelings and manners”.
Abdul Karim was then promoted to become Indian Secretary to the Queen. She commissioned Heinnch Von Angeli to paint Munshi’s portrait. Rudolph Swoboda had also painted a portrait of Abdul Karim which hangs today in the Indian corridor of Osborne House. The famous sculptor Sir Joseph Boehm had made a bronze bust of Abdul Karim which was recently sold at auction in 2008 and 2011 by Bonham’s and Sotheby’s respectively. The Queen took Abdul Karim on all her royal visits and vacations in Europe, this proximity to Abdul Karim, along with her admiration and trust for him caused great friction and jealousy. Lord George Hamilton telegraphed Lord Elgin in India to inquire about Munshi and his family with the intention to discredit him, however, Lord Elgin replied that they were respectable and trustworthy. Hamilton then authorised an investigation against an alleged “Mohamedan intriguer” Rafiuddin Ahmed who visited Abdul Karim, in order to find anything against Munshi, but the investigation found nothing to discredit either. Rafiuddin Ahmed’s contributions to Empire would later land him a role in the Bombay Government and was knighted in 1932. Ponsonby, Col. Bigge, Dr. Reid and others of the Royal household tried turning the Queen against Abdul Karim with insinuating comments about his social status in India, handling finances and even his health but the Queen considered it to be racial prejudice and called it “shameful”. According to the BBC once someone had tried to say ill about Abdul Karim and the Queen angrily responded “this is typical of you British”.
Bonhams’ auctioneers in their 2008 catalogue notes the Queen “recognized that their racist attitude would leave him vulnerable after her death so she made provisions for him in her will”. She had asked the Viceroy in India to arrange some land for him in Agra. The Viceroy reluctantly made the arrangements but wrote back to her mentioning another man, who during the 1857 mutiny had helped blow up the Kashmiri Gate in Delhi at the risk of his life had received land yielding of 250 rupees for life and Abdul Karim was receiving double the amount. The Queen had also given specific instructions that Abdul Karim be given the honour of being among the principal mourners at her funeral.
Queen Victoria died on January 22 1901. Though unwilling, the Queen’s son and now King, Edward VII followed his mother’s instructions and allowed Abdul Karim in the room where the late Queen’s casket was kept. Abdul Karim was the last person to see the Queen before her casket was closed. With the passing of the Queen, the Royals and Lords were able to take revenge on the man they resented for so long but the Queen had stubbornly defended. Queen Alexandra, the Queen consort came with guards banging the doors of the cottage where Abdul Karim and his wife lived. They asked them to bring any documents concerning the Queen and burned it all in a bonfire. Munshi Abdul Karim and his wife stood helplessly and sadly watching the lovingly written words of the Queen being consumed by the fire. King Edward VII immediately ordered Munshi to be sent back to India.
Back in India, Abdul Karim resided at Karim Lodge which he had built on the 300 acres of land that he owned in Agra, most of it gifted by the Queen and the rest he purchased. Even after the death of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim being ordered back to India, King Edward VII continued to be infatuated with their correspondence and kept ordering raids on Abdul Karim’s house to confiscate any form of correspondence.
Munshi Abdul Karim did not live long after the Queen’s death. He died in Agra in1909 at the age of 46. Abdul Karim had written in his diary “I pray to the Almighty for the richest blessings to be showered down on our good Queen Empress”.
Farida Asrar is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada.
A portrait of Abdul Karim
Extremely rare original hand-written letter by Munshi Abdul Karim on embossed Windsor Castle stationary dated 1892 from the private collection of Dr. Farhan M. Asrar, Ontario, Canada.