They were an odd pair, the aging, lonely Queen Victoria and the strapping young Indian, Abdul Karim. Their unusual friendship is told by Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, now published in a Vintage paperback to coincide with the movie of the same name. The movie opens in local theaters on Friday, September 29. The paperback can be found at local booksellers and online.
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, with 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 Allah 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 a 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.
This is an excerpt from Victoria & Abdul, by Shrabani Basu. Copyright © 2010, 2011, 2017 by Shrabani Basu, Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Anchor Publishing, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.