Sometimes, history amuses and sometimes, it fascinates.
The story of a unique friendship between England’s Queen Victoria and her Indian attendant of Muslim heritage, Abdul Karim, is a tale that has fascinated many ever since it surfaced from the forgotten corners of history.
This isn’t a tale that would feature in history books, due to its assumed insignificance. But little do people know that Karim was Queen Victoria’s prized confidant and she trusted him enough to acknowledge his opinions about the British rule in India.
Back in the day, when the royalty started to notice The Queen’s fondness for her Indian servant, many thought that an illicit love affair was brewing. Little did they know that The Queen had started to regard Karim as her son.
In 1887, England was prepping up to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s accession. Around 50 European kings and princes were invited for the event and The Queen was all set to make a lasting impression of her power on them. The Queen of England also held the title of being the Empress of India and she was keen on portraying that to her guests. Therefore, a group of servants were called from India to serve The Queen and her guests during the celebration.
Abdul Karim, a hospital attendant’s son was one of the few who went, but he ended up being among the very few who The Queen mentioned in her personal diary.
She wrote,“The other (Karim), much younger, is much light, tall, and with a fine serious countenance. His father is a native doctor at Agra. They both kissed my feet.” This was after he served her for the very first time.
A few weeks later, her notes revealed that she had taken a keen liking for the young boy. She wrote,“I am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is a great interest to me for both the language and the people, I have naturally never come into real contact with before.”
The servant soon became her teacher. From teaching her Hindustani to giving her insights about the public affairs in India, Karim earned the title of a Munshi from The Queen herself. He would also cook curry for her, which eventually became her favorite dish.
Trouble started to brew when The Queen’s fellows in the Royal Court began to object to the importance that was being given to Karim. He was accompanying The Queen on her Royal endeavours, with the one to Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s Scottish estate, being the most infamous.
Karim was given his own room that earlier belonged to John Brown, The Queen’s favorite servant who had passed away.
Karim was well aware of The Queen’s dependence on him and he used it to suit his needs. By threatening The Queen to leave for India, Karim asked for a higher social status in the Royal court. And guess what? The Queen obliged.
While she was even keen to grant him knighthood, the court settled with the honor of CIE (Companion of the Indian Empire) and later the CVO (Commander).
While Karim was growing in the social stature, his financial status was rising too. Apart from all the grants and wealth that bestowed on her most loyal confidant, The Queen also planned for his safe future, rightly assuming that Karim would be sent back to India and stripped of all his riches after she passed away.
In 1900, The Queen’s health started to deteriorate. Karim saw his Queen die in front of his eyes in 1901 and soon enough, her son, the new King, Edward VII, sent Karim back to India after 13 years of loyal service.
The Queen had registered a huge chunk of estate near Agra in Karim’s name. Before he left for India, Edward VII asked Karim to hand him all the letters and notes that The Queen had written to him. They were set on fire, so that nobody could trace back to this unusual relationship. It was only much later that Karim’s hidden journal was published and the story came back to life.
A little over a century has passed and now we stand fascinated by this piece of history.
This fascinating story was first brought to light by Shibani Basu in her book, Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. And now, it is being presented as a movie with Judi Dench playing Queen Victoria and the Fukrey actor, Ali Fazal, playing Karim.
You can watch the trailer of the film here:
It is tales like these that keep us interested in history.