x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Queen Victoria's love for an Indian clerk revealed

Newly discovered diary of Abdul Karim, the Muslim clerk from Agra who became Queen Victoria's closest confidant, sheds light on what was 'unquestionably a passionate relationship'.

The closeness of Abdul Karim's relationship with Queen Victoria made many in the British royal court jealous - in this photo, he was criticised for looking directly at the camera rather than deferentially lowering his eyes.
The closeness of Abdul Karim's relationship with Queen Victoria made many in the British royal court jealous - in this photo, he was criticised for looking directly at the camera rather than deferentially lowering his eyes.

LONDON // A remarkable story of how an Indian brought to England to serve at a Buckingham Palace dinner became Queen Victoria's closest confidant is being unveiled in a new book.

The closeness of the 15-year relationship between the queen and her Muslim servant Abdul Karim, originally a clerk from Agra, so scandalised the royal court that, when Victoria died in 1901, her son, King Edward VII, ordered all records of the relationship, including correspondence and photographs, to be destroyed.

Karim might have remained a forgotten historical footnote had not the Kolkata-born author Shrabani Basu discovered, during research for a book she was writing on curry, that Victoria had ordered the dish to be on the royal menu daily during the final decade-and-a-half of her reign.

Intrigued, she started digging and, through a variety of sources, uncovered the "love story" of the Indian servant and the most powerful woman in the world.

Early last year, Basu, who now lives in London, published her book Victoria and Abdul in the subcontinent. Then, something remarkable happened: Begum Qamar Jehan, a frail 85-year-old and one of Abdul Karim's few remaining relatives, contacted her through the British Council and revealed she had Karim's diary and other documents.

This month, a revised version of Victoria and Abdul is being published with the fresh information from the diary in which Karim records his extraordinary rise during the decade between the queen's golden and diamond jubilees.

It was the golden jubilee in 1887 that had brought the 24-year-old Karim to London as "a gift from India". Victoria wanted two Indian waiters there to serve an Indian princess who was attending the celebrations.

Within a year, the tall, handsome Karim had become one of the most important and influential figures in court, much to the chagrin of both the government and members of the queen's own family.

At one stage, Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, intervened to stop the queen awarding Karim a knighthood. Instead, she made him Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire and, later, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

When Karim arrived at court, Victoria was still mourning the death four years earlier of John Brown, the Scottish gillie who had become the queen's favourite - and, probably, her lover - after the death in 1861 of her husband, Prince Albert.

"In letters to him (Karim) over the years, the queen signed letters to him as 'your loving mother' and 'your closest friend'," Basu told the BBC. "On some occasions, she even signed off her letters with a flurry of kisses - a highly unusual thing to do at that time.

"It was unquestionably a passionate relationship: a relationship which I think operated on many different layers in addition to the mother-and-son ties between a young Indian man and a woman who, at the time, was over 60 years old."

Basu doubts that the pair were actually lovers. Karim was married and the queen was very fond of his wife. The queen and Karim, however, did spark much gossip in royal circles by spending a night alone in the cottage in the Scottish Highlands where Victoria and Brown used to stay.

Within a year, of his arrival, Karim had become the queen's teacher or munshi, instructing her in Urdu, Hindi and Indian affairs.

He travelled with her on visits to monarchs abroad, was given homes on all the royal estates as well as in India, and had curry put on the daily menu at Windsor Castle.

Eventually, he became the queen's secretary, much to the displeasure of courtiers and Victoria's family. "If the royal household hated Brown, it absolutely abhorred Abdul Karim," Basu said.

"I am so very fond of him," Queen Victoria was recorded as telling her daughter-in-law, Louise, Duchess of Cornwall, in 1888. "He is so good and gentle and understanding … and is a real comfort to me."

Basu added: "The queen's munshi was named in court circulars, given the best positions at operas and banquets, allowed to play billiards in all the royal palaces and had a private horse carriage and footman."

He also had a profound influence on Victoria's attitude towards India, leading the queen to repeatedly berate successive viceroys in charge of the one-time colony over measures they should be taking to reduce communal tensions.

"At a time when the British empire was at its height, a young Muslim occupied a central position of influence over its sovereign," Basu said.

"It was a relationship that sent shockwaves through the royal court and was arguably a relationship far more scandalous than her much reported friendship with Mr Brown."

After the queen's death - when Victoria ordered that the Indian be given a place among the principal mourners at her funeral - Karim was promptly dismissed and sent back to India by King Edward.

Karim smuggled his diary out of the country and, upon his death in 1909, it was kept hidden by his nephew, Abdul Rashid. The family took it to Pakistan with them when they fled India 40 years later.

Now, for the first time, the 19th century diary has emerged into the public gaze.

"I was fortunate enough to have unearthed a truly remarkable love story," Basu said.

dsapsted@thenational.ae