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The Fascinating Love Story of Queen Victoria and Abdul

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Ravi Shankar Rajan is a software program director who writes on varied subjects from history, archaeology to leadership and poetry.

The Fascinating Love Story of Queen Victoria and Abdul

The Fascinating Love Story of Queen Victoria and Abdul

An Unconventional Love Story

It was not the puppy love that we see these days. It was pure love at a much deeper level based on mutual respect, admiration and integrity transcending all boundaries of culture, wealth, power, and geographies. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before.

The relationship between Queen Victoria and her handsome, young Indian attendant Abdul Karim was considered so scandalous that after immediately after the queen died in 1901, her descendants systematically scrubbed off all evidence of it. It was almost as if it was a royal shame committed by the queen meant to be forgotten and pushed deep under the dusty annals of history

As historian Carolly Erickson in her book Her Little Majesty.

“For a dark-skinned Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable, for him to eat at the same table with them, to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage.”

“I am so very fond of him. He is so good and gentle and understanding . . . and is a real comfort to me.” - Queen Victoria

“I am so very fond of him. He is so good and gentle and understanding . . . and is a real comfort to me.” - Queen Victoria

The queen went on long walks with him

The queen went on long walks with him

The Story of Queen Victoria and Abdul

Shrabani Basu the historian discovered the existence of Karim quite by accident in 2003 when she was visiting Osborne House, a former private home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the U.K.’s Isle of Wight. She saw a painting of Karim and was immediately fascinating by his regal dressing in the portrait.

As she tells later.

“He didn’t look a servant. He was painted to look like a nobleman. He was holding a book, looking sideways. Something that about that expression struck me, and when I moved along, I saw another portrait of him looking rather gentle. It was very unusual.”

Her curiosity was piqued as she delves deep into the history of Karim. Who is this Karim and what was his relationship with the queen?

Basu read through the private papers of the Queen’s household and she came to know that the queen had a warm relationship with him and used to call him ‘Munshi’, A term used for native Indian teachers and accountants. Most of the correspondence was destroyed by the royal household but Shrabani stuck a pot of gold when she found the diary of Karim which was kept in care by his descendants back in India.

After painstaking research, she was finally able to put together the jigsaw puzzle telling the fabulous story of Victoria and Abdul in her bestselling book Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. Later the book was made into a film Victoria and Abdul starring Judi Dench as the Queen and Bollywood actor Ali Fazal as Karim.

Basu tells us a very poignant tale of love, affection, respect, and later resentment in her book.

Karim came to England as part of the request of the queen who wanted Indian staff members to help serve at a banquet for heads of state. And Karim became one of the two servants selected and presented to Victoria as a ‘gift’ from India. Karim immediately started his duties at the palace and the queen was almost instantly fascinated by him as she writes about him to a friend.

“He is never petty and irritable like others and whenever something goes wrong, he simply says ‘god ordered it’ which is really heartening.”

Karim made his first big impression through the monarch’s stomach. His chicken curry along with dal and pilau was so good that the queen made it her regular diet. According to Victoria biographer A.N. Wilson, the queen was so impressed by the dish that she began to show a keen interest towards the country where the dish was originated, India.

She expressed her interest to learn Urdu from Karim. The two spend hours, with the queen meticulously filling several notebooks attempting the learn the ‘language of Hindustan’ as she called it.

In order to better communicate with each other, she insisted on Karim’s doubling his English lessons. Slowly long discussions started between him where Karim explained the nuances of Indian culture and his life back in India. The queen began to spend more time with him than with her family members as she writes.

“I am so very fond of him. He is so good and gentle and understanding . . . and is a real comfort to me.”

Victoria quickly promoted him to ‘Munshi and Indian Clerk to the Queen Empress’ at a monthly salary of 12 pounds. He was later promoted as her personal secretary. She gave him great privileges like traveling with her throughout Europe, titles, honours, prime seats at operas and banquets, a private carriage, and personal gifts. The queen also took care of Karim’s family members by helping his father get a pension. She also commissioned multiple portraits of Karim.

Was there any physical relationship? the diary does not say so although they did spend a night in one of the queen’s cottages at Glassat Shiel, a remote cottage in Scotland. Karim filled a deep void in her life as Basu tells us.

“He spoke to her as a human being and not as the Queen. Everyone else kept their distance from her, even her own children and this young Indian came with an innocence about him. He told her about India, his family, and was there to listen when she complained about her own family.”

The Royals were Furious

The queen was aware of the animosity of the royals towards Karim and did every bit to protect him. Her royal doctor Sir James Reid was openly hostile towards Karim when he said to him in his face.

“You are from a very low class and never can be a gentleman. If the queen were to die and any letters of hers were found in your possession no mercy will be shown to you.”

The queen knew there is no future for Karim after her death and her worst fears were justified upon her death on January 22, 1901. Her son Edward VII sent guards into the cottage Karim shared with his wife, seizing and burning all letters he had with the queen.

All the queen’s correspondence in her journal containing any references to Karim were scrubbed off by her daughter Princess Beatrice. They instructed Karim to return to India immediately, without fanfare or farewell.

Karim would spend the remainder of his life in relative obscurity as his episode became a little-known scandal meant to be forgotten and not to be discussed within the royal circles. And it took the western world a little more 100 years to know about the touching, special relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim.

As Basu tells us.

“The thing is, it’s not fiction — it’s fact. This happened. Queen Victoria learned Urdu, and she stood by Abdul Karim. It sounds like a fantasy, but it isn’t.”

Sources

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 22, 2021:

Thanks for your comments Linda.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 22, 2021:

Thank you for sharing this information. I’ve known about the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul for some time, but you’ve increased my knowledge. The way in which Abdul was treated after Victoria’s death is so sad.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 22, 2021:

Thanks James for your comments.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on April 22, 2021:

I didn't know of this before. This just goes to show how silly it is for us to put up these artificial barriers between people. Sometimes people just click regardless of their backgrounds. As always I learn something new from your articles.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 22, 2021:

Thanks Chitangada for your kind comments

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 22, 2021:

Excellent story telling, Ravi ji!

I have seen the heart warming movie, and you have done this article in a beautiful and sensitive way! Pure love has no boundaries indeed!

Thank you for sharing!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 22, 2021:

Thanks Vanita for your comments

Vanita Thakkar on April 22, 2021:

Very interesting facts. I had not heard about this. It is very sad that such pure relationships which were based on love - full of trust, understanding and acceptance - were considered “lowly” or unacceptable, the evidence of its being a reality were destroyed and the person involved was ill-treated.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Urwa for your comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Vidya for your comments

Urwa from East County & Cooking and Baking Expert on April 21, 2021:

A very interesting love story, I really enjoyed reading this story. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karem

VIDYA D SAGAR on April 21, 2021:

Hi Ravi,

This is a wonderful article. I saw the film Victoria and Abdul. It is a very charming movie. Abdul's friendship with the queen as depicted in the movie is so endearing. She seemed to have cherish this friendship. Sad that he was treated so badly after her death.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

All, please do comment on this article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for your comments.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 21, 2021:

Thanks for filling in some information about the mutual respect and companionship shared between Queen Victoria and Abdul. It is a shame that he was treated so badly following the Queen's death. I must have seen some clips of the movie. As I was reading your account, it sounded familiar.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Ann for your comments.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 21, 2021:

This is a wonderful story, that I knew nothing about. There was a film about another of her servants, John Brown (played by Billy Connolly), who was appointed to try to 'bring her out of her shell' after Prince Albert's death. He became a trusted confidant too.

It's such a shame that Karim was treated so badly by the rest of the family after her death. They should have treasured him and realised the friendship for what it was. She must have been very lonely, as Albert was her life.

Thanks for the education, Ravi.

Ann

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Misbah for your comments

Misbah from The Planet Earth on April 21, 2021:

I have heard about this before. Love is always pure. If there was mutual respect and kindness for each other. It was pure. Sadly, many women in history had ruled, were queens and princess of their times. They have enjoyed the luxury of throne, palace and crowns but their lives remained empty. Just like Princess Diana. Thanks for sharing it

Blessings to you

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 21, 2021:

ravirajan01 I watched the movie and such great people to act these parts of interest. I enjoyed the movie and got me thinking of the scandal.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

Thanks John for your comments.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 21, 2021:

I had heard of this story and the movie before, but thank you for your interesting and informative account, Ravi. I enjoyed this excellent article.

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