Victoria and Abdul

by Shrabani Basu

Read this in about 5 minutes

Queen Victoria was the longest reigning monarch in the history of Great Britain. Some would say she was dictatorial, some call her stupid and emotional and some, simply insane. However, what she was, was a lonely old woman who found solace in the company of few. Victoria and her Indian servant were inseparable until everything ended and the Edwardian era began. Abdul came Home richer than ever but Victoria’s absence took a toll on him too. He died at a mere age of forty-six.

This book is the story of a queen and her closest confidant. I was invited to the blogger meet to attend the movie screening of the same name by Bloomsbury. The movie was beautiful but I am biased towards the book.

Cover: Victoria and Abdul

Cover page

I extremely dislike the movie tie in editions of any book. This one is no different. On the cover page are Judy Dench and Ali Fazal taking a stroll in the gardens. It is a scene from the movie adaptation. The composition is not bad altogether but I liked the earlier cover better.

Characters

The book is about Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. Queen Victoria was sixty-eight when Abdul entered her life. Victoria was an extremely tough person to deal with. There was a considerable distance between her and the other members of the family. She was lonely. She missed her Albert very much.

Abdul turned out to be her best company towards the last thirteen years of her life. Abdul was a humble clerk in the jail office of Agra. A well-spoken man of impressive personality, Abdul managed to impress the queen. They became the best of friends. Their relationship was more of a mother and her ward, which faced scrutiny from everyone around. However, they went on, unfazed.

Content

The book begins with the author’s note on the queen. She is shown around the Windsor Castle where she comes across the portrait of Abdul painted by Rudolph Swoboda. Shrabani Basu takes us to Agra and its political background when Abdul comes into the picture. The subsequent journey to Britain is described with intriguing details.

Abdul arrives in the country, which is completely different from his, and he is charmed by it. So is the Queen by him. He becomes her Munshi and she his perpetual defender. They are strong as rocks. Queen learns to read and write Urdu and Abdul climbs up the social ladder. Being closest to a powerful monarch comes with its benefits. Now, it may seem like a beneficial arrangement for both but the author here explores further.

As their friendship grows there overcomes a wave of jealousy in the household. Those serving the queen for years take a note of the magnificent promotions of the Munshi from one rank to the other gradually upping his seat in the society whereas they just stayed where they started. Ponsonboy is even refused an increment and Reid would always be the errand runner. The household even threatens to resign but that never comes about after a good dress down from the queen herself.

Victoria and Abdul

The queen’s blind faith in her loved subject continues as she rejects his relationship with the agitator Rafiuddin. The accusation of thievery and sycophancy is also met with a sneer. Such was the trust. But did the Munshi use it to uplift the status of the Muslims in her eyes? The queen was promptly informed of all the prejudices against the Muslim population portraying them as the ones on the losing grounds. Queen started writing frantic letters to Indian representatives asking for reservations for Muslims. She also suggested shifting the dates of the Hindu festivals so that Muharram could be celebrated without any interference.

The Munshi begins from his journey from a lowly servant to the queen but comes back to India possessing acres of prime land in Agra and otherwise unachievable social status.

Basu scrutinises all the angles of the friendship and concludes with an emotional ‘A forgotten grave, a laminated telegram and the memories of an old man were all that was left of him in his native city. Agra has moved on.’ She has tried to give an unbiased, sort of, precise account of their friendship from different perspectives, which is definitely worth reading about.

Language

One cannot help but admire the writing in the book. It is a great non-fictional account that narrates like a story. There is drama of the court and pain of the queen. Very different from other history writers, this book will keep you glued.

Good points

The characters are very interesting to read about. Not only the lead characters but also those serving the Queen have been described awfully well. Sir James Reid and Henry Ponsonboy are damn interesting to read about. The content is different from other historical accounts that are dedicated to the main players in the history. The different angles to the relationship are explored in great depth. The narration is intriguing. It will make anyone fall in love with history.

Bad points

My general dislike for the movie-tie-in covers persists here. The content may be a little overloaded for those who were looking for a simple sweet story.

Overall

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It took me longer than usual to finish the book but it was worthwhile.

Whom do I recommend this to

This one is for history lovers. Those who like good narration are going to love this one too. It will take a lot of patience to read through though.

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Veena Choudhary

An avid reader and history fanatic.

Mumbai, MH merakipost.com