Victoria and Abdul sheds light on a forgotten historical Indian figure who rose on his own merits in the Court of the British Queen ; and was wiped out from the blackboard of history; only to be dug out decades later by Shrabani Basu.
The Queen was experiencing the flavours of the East like never before. She was, after all, Empress of India, Kaiser-e-Hind or Mallika -e- Hindustan. . . . . Her passage to India was only just beginning.
This historical novel describes the relationship between the Queen and Abdul Karim, her Indian confidante. Interestingly, the text books have always shown the British invasion in a negative light; while never once trying to discover the Queen’s strange relationship with her Indian servant, who later became her Munshi or teacher- a position of high repute and regard given to any Indian , in the Victorian era.
Victoria and Abdul is a story of friendship, respect, honour, defence, envy, humiliation and suspicion. Every shade of human emotions can be seen in this never-before-heard-of relationship of the Munshi with the Queen and other members of the Queen’s Household. When Abdul Karim, a young man of 23 was sent to England to be the Queen’s attendant, little did anyone know that he was destined to be her closest confidante instead.
The novel’s flow is based on research and facts. Never have I ever seen such beautiful writing emerging out of the re-arrangement and compilation of facts. Throughout the 266 pages, Basu, has made sure to appeal to the human emotions through her words and vivid imagery while portraying a true situation.
It is often said that the mighty and powerful positions are the most lonely ones. Such seems true for the elderly Queen who lost her beloved almost four decades ago and was disturbed by the nuances of her children and extended family. Thus she finds solace in befriending Abdul and consulting him in most matters and decisions. The Queen was also at a loss due to her inability to visit India and thus made Abdul, her doorway to the Orient. Bound by determination she even started learning Hindustaani/ Urdu and completed thirteen journals . she considered Abdul a.k.a. Munshi, almost like her son and her constant persistence gave him important positions in her Court, theatre tableaux, among the elites of the World, land grants in Agra and other prominent positions to his family back home; at times going against the wishes of her Household and family.
However, a vast proportion of the novel also consists of the conspiracy theories the Queen’s Court and Household plotted against Abdul, so that he can be lowered in the eyes of the Queen. In fact the whole Munshi business had become stressful and tiring to such an extent that people called it the ‘Munshimania’. Was it racism at play? Was it discrimination? Was it the inferiority complex regarding individual status in the Household via-a-vis the Munshi; that drove the Household to hate and conspire against him? Most members had their own opinion and from their point of view was not wholly incorrect.
What touched me the most was the disgraceful behaviour the Munshi was subjected to, after the Queen’s death and his family after his own demise. The Queens’s Household on orders from Prince Edward raided all the cottages and houses – in the UK and in India- and burnt all forms of correspondence that existed between the Queen and her beloved Munshi. In fact, with time, all evidences of this individual were buried deep and the man himself who strode among royalty lay in a five feet grave in an isolated and forgotten graveyard since the 1909- his popularity lost in the gravels of time only to be uncovered by Shrabani Basu years later.
A fact that struck me the most , was that the narration was majorly from the point of view of the Queen and her household. Compared to it, the Munshi’s own thoughts did not find a prominent space in the narration. But again, since the novel is based on facts a benefit of doubt can be given to the author for focusing on a point of view based on research and evidences. Though it seems very clear from the journal entries by the Munshi regarding his relationship towards the Queen, but a little more opinion on the Household and his relations with the other Indian servants , through his eyes would have been great.
Nevertheless, I would recommend all to read this beautiful novel to discover a lost Indian pride and live this wonderful relationship between the Queen and Abdul through its pages.
Victoria and Abdul : The Movie
Today, Victoria and Abdul has been adopted into a major motion picture starring Judie Dench and Ali Fazal in the lead roles and directed by Stephen Frears. It was released on the 15th of September, 2017. Personally, the movie was good but it failed to establish the essence of the relationship between Victoria and Abdul. Due to time constraints, only incidents of the book could be adapted ; but that lead to an epidermal establishment of the relationship. The seriousness of the storyline was beautifully laced with comic situations providing the audience the much-needed respite. Both Dench and Fazal delivered remarkable performances. Though I do not rate movies but I would like to give Victoria and Abdul a 6.5-7/10 and would recommend you to watch it.
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*Disclaimer: I was provided a review copy of Victoria and Abdul from BloomsburyIndia in exchange of an honest review.