Where new writing finds its voice

The Empire Talks Back

Amabel Barraclough

At this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival Amabel Barraclough caught up with author and historian Shrabani Basu and asked her about Victoria and Abdul, her new book exploring the extraordinary relationship between the Queen of England and an Indian courtier

It was late winter in India and flying into Delhi in the middle of the night, the city was cloaked in a dense fog of chilled petrol fumes. Jaipur lies three hundred kilometres away, a five-hour drive weaving among the Tata juggernauts. The dust turns from orange to pink as we enter the desert and craggy hills of Rajasthan. 

English author and Indian resident William Dalrymple is the co-director of the festival, which is now in its fifth year and makes big headlines in India during its five-day run. The line-up reflects Dalrymple’s varied interests as a writer and historian, bringing in heavyweights from Indian, American and British literature and journalism.

The festival is held in the ornate Diggi Palace, one of half a dozen grandiose palaces in the city, and on arrival I find a gathering of distinguished-looking gentlemen with greying hair and pale linen suits, which recalls a colonial garden party; the tall figure of Alexander McCall Smith in a panama hat among them. But they are surrounded by a bustling crowd up from Delhi: excited school children in their uniforms stream in line around the grounds and the press gather in a sudden frenzy at the arrival of Bollywood stars and dignitaries.

The talks take place in tents, in the ornate Durbar Hall, or on the Palace’s front lawn where the speaker’s words are accompanied by the constant chirruping of chipmunks and the call of pariah kites circling high above on the thermals. As evening falls and the sober discussions of the day come to a close, a performance from Rajasthan Roots – a collective of Rajasthani folk musicians who feature in Dalrymple’s latest book, Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India – creates a raucous carnival atmosphere.

There were some more dubious musical moments, however, such as when the figure of a wild-haired woman lifting her arms to the sky, her chesty voice a resonating call to the night, was enough to send me promptly into the nearest tuk tuk and back to my hotel room and its fifteen channels of Bollywood repeats.

I found the prevailing mood of the festival was one of enthusiasm for discussion and debate, whether it was about ancient forms of Vedic poetry or the disintegration of Al-Qaeda. Talking to Shrabani Basu at the festival she referred to this eager engagement as part of the ‘street politics’ of India; an awareness of current political events and history among all levels of society and a general inclination to discuss and debate these issues as a matter of course.

Basu’s new book, Victoria and Abdul, explores the relationship between Queen Victoria and one of her Indian courtiers. A man of little education, Abdul Karim was plucked from the street to serve as a handsome decoration at her Golden Jubilee in 1887. He would go on to become her closest confidante, becoming known as Munshi, meaning teacher or clerk in Urdu, and as a result despised by the rest of the court, most vehemently by her son and the future King of England, Edward VII.

Perhaps because of this Abdul, until recently, had rarely garnered more than a slim chapter in most biographies of the Queen and was almost always cast in a disparaging light. Rich ground, then, for Basu to investigate, ‘I knew almost nothing of him, but he intrigued me... If he was a rogue, I was fine with that, but he was a rogue who had played an important part.’ Being able to read Abdul’s journals, which are written in Hindi, Shrabani realised that a lot had been lost in translation and his historical portrait was coloured by the prejudices of a xenophobic and jealous court.

It was Abdul’s sense of the aforementioned street politics that enabled him to have such a significant role in court. He satisfied the Queen’s curiosity about India and told her the truth about what was happening there, as well as teaching her Urdu and Hindi. This inevitably posed a threat to the authority of the Viceroy of India and his chancellors – for them the Queen’s ignorance was essential to the smooth running of the imperial machine.

Abdul filled in the naive image she held of the Indian subcontinent, as she longed to visit her Eastern Empire but was by now too old for the epic sea journey. He brought to life the culture of the country, but he also explained the sectarian issues. He made her aware of the unrest that stirred among the populace and what they really felt about the rule of the Raj: ‘Abdul to her was India, the real India,’ explains Shrabani.

The Queen began to bombard the Viceroy with letters: she was under the impression that the British residents were very heavy-handed. The Indian people had respect for the Crown but resented British administration. She understood insurgents had to be controlled but insisted that Indian princes should be treated with respect.

It was obvious where these ideas were coming from and the situation was both extraordinary and unnerving – a young Muslim man finding himself in a position to influence the great monarch during a crucial period of her reign. Their relationship acted, in many ways, as a replacement for the companionship she had lost when John Brown died. Like him, Abdul was able to step over the boundaries at court that kept the Queen so isolated, even from her own family.

The two would also discuss their most personal ideas: she gave him tips on how his wife could conceive children and they would both discuss family life, she complaining to him of the difficulties she had with her own children, especially Edward.

When she died, it was Abdul who was the last to see her body before the coffin was closed and following her instructions it was her Indian servants who guarded her body as she lay in state. As soon as this period of mourning was over, however, the new King finally had his revenge. He expelled the Indians from court, Abdul’s house was raided and all the letters that had passed between the courtier and the Queen were destroyed.

Shrabani is proud to have ‘reclaimed Abdul from history’ and cast him in a new light. Though he was naturally interested in furthering himself, he was not the deceitful opportunist he has often been portrayed as, but a great friend to the ageing Empress. He was also the voice of the street, speaking truths into the ear of the British Empire, whether it wanted to listen or not.