When I first saw the trailer for the movie Victoria and Abdul last year, I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes a little. It looked too cutesy, and perhaps too guilty of romanticizing British colonialism. But when I heard that there was a book about the true story behind the movie, I was intrigued.
Shrabani Basu’s book about Abdul Karim and his work as “Munshi” (teacher or clerk) to Queen Victoria is a straightforward account of a relationship that was central to the final years of the queen’s life. Karim came to Britain in 1887, one of a pair of Indian servants presented to the queen as part of her Golden Jubilee celebration. It didn’t take long for them to form a friendship, with Karim preparing curries for the queen, telling her stories of India, and teaching her Urdu. His status rose once the queen realized that he hadn’t been brought up in service, and he spent time with her daily, as advisor and teacher.
It’s probably no surprise that the queen’s household viewed Karim with suspicion. Part of the problem was, no doubt, their racism. But Karim’s own countrymen also complained of Karim’s influence, likely because they were jealous of his status. The fact that Karim was Muslim also created complications, as he was suspected of urging the queen to take the Muslims’ side in their conflict with the Hindus in India.
To tell the story, Basu draws heavily on letters and diary entries by the queen, Karim, members of the royal household, and government officials. These documents show clearly how strong the queen’s affection for Karim was and how ardently she worked on his behalf, whether that meant making sure he would have some land on her death and ensuring that he was given respect within the household. In general, Basu relies more on these documents than on her own speculation, although there are moments when she describes incidents and emotions that could not actually be known.
The reliance on actual documents and lack of speculation is both a strength and a weakness. I always appreciate the use of primary sources, and the excerpts Basu uses are well-chosen and build her case well. But sometimes it seems a little too straightforward. There are allusions, for instance, to Karim’s ambition, that are never strongly pursued, even though the bare outline of the story makes his ambition clear. Yet the focus is always on the mutual affection between the queen and her munshi. From the documentation, that affection seems genuine, but Basu shows little interest in other angles on the relationship, seemingly dismissing them as rooted in racism and jealousy—both of which are most definitely present. I would have appreciated more context on matters like the conflict between Muslims and Hindus and why the queen’s household would be so rattled by Karim’s possible advocacy for the Muslims.
Overall, though, this was a good straightforward, accounting of a little-known story. It’s not very long, and it takes both its principal subjects seriously without attempting to draw big, grand conclusions about colonialism and race and the British empire. It just tells a story of two people forming a relationship under unusual circumstances.