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Queen Victoria learnt Urdu for 13 years!

Queen Victoria learnt Urdu for 13 years!
Pic: TOI

Queen Victoria’s most intimate link to the `jewel in the crown’ was an Indian orderly named Abdul Karim who cooked her curry and taught her Urdu. She created quite a stir by trying to knight him. Shrabani Basu, author of Victoria & Abdul , tells Manimugdha S. Sharma more about this special relationship that has now been brought alive in a film starring Judi Dench

Contrary to popular perception in India, your book suggests that Queen Victoria had affection for India. Could you tell us more about this?

When I started to research, the impression I had of Queen Victoria was that of a very formidable person, dressed in black, who represented Empire, the crushing of the Mutiny and the seizure of the Kohinoor. But as I read her letters and journals, I realised how much she loved India and Indians. She defends Indians against the royal household and her own family. She sends them stern memos when she senses they are being racist. So it is a different side to Victoria that emerges in my book. She was definitely ahead of her time and different to everyone in the court and administration. The fact that there was a young Indian at the heart of the royal court is significant. It had never happened before and has not happened since.

So Abdul was her window to India?

As Queen Victoria could not go to India because of the long sea journey, the country came to her in the form of Abdul Karim. He told her about the beauty of the Taj Mahal and the festivals of India, he cooked her curry, even taught her Urdu. He even told her about Hindu-Muslim riots and political tensions, giving her an insight into the real India.

You’ve mentioned the jealousy that the rest of the royal household had towards Abdul and other Indians -the `black brigade’ as they are referred to. Was Abdul’s personal faith also a reason for that?

The household hated Karim because he was an Indian -a subject race -placed at a position of importance (her personal secretary) by the queen. They also hated him because he was a commoner. So, there were elements of both race and class snobbery. They were jealous that the queen was showering him with gifts, giving him land, houses and titles.

The British administration was suspicious of Muslims, as they felt that the Mutiny had been led in the name of the last Mughal emperor. They tried to accuse Karim of being a spy for the emir of Afghanistan as he had a friend in the Muslim Patriotic League. They had him followed when he went on holiday in India, but could pin nothing on him.

When all else failed they threatened to resign collectively if the queen continued to favour the Munshi.

The Queen learnt Urdu to know India. But today, some Indians are disowning Urdu, calling it the language of slavery, of the `other’. Your thoughts on this contrast?

I think it is hugely significant that Queen Victoria learnt Urdu for 13 years. It is a part of Victorian history that was completely unknown. It would be a pity if a rich and beautiful language like Urdu was allowed to fade away. It is a part of the shared history of India and Britain that both countries should remember.

Tell us about Victoria’s relationship with the Indian maharajas.

The queen had very good relations with the Indian maharajas. They often visited her and many were invited to her jubilee celebrations. She had great respect for Sir Pertab, the maharaja of Jodhpur. She was also very fond of the maharaja of Cooch Behar, Nripendra Narayan, and his wife Sunity Devi. Sunity Devi was the first Indian maharani to visit Britain and a guest at the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887.

Another special relationship was with the young Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last ruler of Punjab, who came to stay with her after the conquest of the Punjab. Later in life, Duleep Singh went into rebellious mode against her but she continued to be very fond of his wife and children. Towards the end of his life, Duleep Singh visited her in France and begged forgiveness. She forgave him but the whole episode saddened her.

How did Indians perceive Victoria as a ruler? And did she know that her statues at some places in India were being defaced?

Many Indians did not like the British administration, but they respected the monarch. In fact, her biggest memorial is in Kolkata -the Victoria Memorial. The money for it was raised by public subscription after her death.

You’ve written how after the queen died in 1901, Abdul and all other Indians in her household were immediately given the cold shoulder. Does it illustrate how non-whites are treated in Britain even today?

King Edward VII burnt all letters written by Victoria to Abdul and ordered a raid on his house. Abdul was asked to leave, as were the other Indians. Suddenly there were no more colourful turbans in the court, no curries cooking in the royal kitchens. It was a classic display of “foreigners go home” and Brexit Britain. Racism still continues not just in Britain, but across the world, so the story feels relevant even today.

Courtesy: The Times of India