It was a curry, says Shrabani Basu. ‘In a way, the book started with a curry.’
The book she is referring to is Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant which explores the strong bond Queen Victoria shared with her personal attendant, a young Indian named Abdul Karim. (For the record, it was also made into a film starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal. But about that, later.)
Few things fascinate Shrabani, a UK-based Indian journalist, author and historian, more than bringing to light little known historical incidents that occurred in Britain and India during the colonial rule. And the good news is that she will be sharing some of them during the upcoming Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai.
‘My work revolves around the relationship of India and Britain over the Raj years, and there are many hidden histories from that period that I have uncovered and will be talking about,’ she says, in an exclusive interview with Friday.
Shrabani will surely be discussing her first book, Curry, and Victoria & Abdul, the book that came about thanks to her research into the history of curry in Britain.
Peppered with plenty of fascinating details, Victoria & Abdul, republished in 2017, has plenty of intriguing and absorbing insights into a chapter of history that few know about in detail.
So how did the book come about? I ask.
‘I learnt that Queen Victoria loved curry and that she had two servants who cooked it for her,’ says the writer, warming up to the subject.
Then one day a few years later, while on a tour of the former royal holiday residence of Osborne House, Shrabani chanced upon a portrait of Abdul Karim, one of the men who supposedly cooked curries in the royal palace. ‘He was painted in red and gold, and was holding a book, looking more like a nawab than a servant,’ she recalls.
The writer would soon discover more portraits of Abdul at Osborne and a bust. ‘He seemed to be everywhere,’ she says. ‘The final trigger for me [to write the book] was a photograph of Abdul Karim in the Queen’s bedroom, which has been left exactly as it was when she died. That really aroused my curiosity and I wanted to know more about him.’
Her desire to uncover the story would take her on a four-year journey across three countries – India, Pakistan and the UK – unearthing details about Abdul and his relationship with the queen.
‘It was fascinating. There were times even I could not believe what I was reading in letters, journals and private diaries,’ says the author who was born in Kolkata and raised in Dhaka, Kathmandu and Delhi.
ON ABDUL’S TRAIL
An assistant clerk at Agra central Jail, Abdul was barely 24 years old when he left Agra in India for England to wait at tables during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in the 1880s
Within a year of his arrival in the palace, he earned the Queen’s trust to become her personal attendant and her teacher (or munshi (meaning, teacher) as she is said to have addressed him), giving her lessons in Urdu and Indian affairs. However, it was a relationship that would lead to a near revolt in the royal family.
‘I realised that Queen Victoria’s relationship with Abdul Karim was very controversial and had caused a storm in court,’ says Shrabani. The more she began researching this part of the Queen’s life that was largely unknown, the more engrossing it was turning out to be.
‘The impression we have of Queen Victoria was that of a woman dressed in black, whose most famous line was “We are not amused”. But there was a whole undiscovered human side to her.
‘The fact that she had a young Indian man at the heart of her Royal household showed she was ahead of her time in many ways. That all this drama was happening when the Empire was at its height made it even more fascinating.’
Keen to uncover more of the lesser-known chapter in British and Indian history, the graduate in history from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, began to meticulously research documents and letters from the era, after gaining access to the private papers of the Queen’s household, official letters the Queen wrote to viceroys, and documents by her personal physician, among others.
She was also granted permission to access several volumes of the Queen’s journals in which Victoria practiced Urdu. In many of them, the Queen would sign off notes to Abdul Karim with ‘dearest mother’ or ‘your loving mother’.
Was it easy finding material for the book? I ask.
Not at all, she makes it clear. ‘It was four years of hard work. I was following letters, journals and piecing together the story from several sources.’
Part of her research involved sifting through the archives at Windsor Castle, reading the correspondence on Karim between the Viceroy and the Royal Household, and looking through the diaries of Victoria’s personal physician, Sir James Reid.
‘I read the newspaper reports of the time and the gossip columns. I travelled to all the royal palaces where they would go and followed on their trail.’
However, to make Shrabani’s research more difficult, she discovered that many of the letters the two exchanged had been destroyed after the Queen’s death.
Keen to find out more about Abdul Karim, Shrabani travelled to his home town of Agra and then to Karachi where she struck pay dirt. ‘His descendants who were in Karachi showed me his diary,’ she says, adding the family told her they had Abdul’s original journals which had been assumed destroyed.
That was the turning point; one that would help her in completing the book.
‘There’s a line in one [of Abdul’s journals] that says, ‘whoever’s hand this falls into, I hope they like this story’. After more than a hundred years, it had fallen into my hands,’ says Shrabani.
‘It gave me goosebumps just reading those lines... like he was communicating to me from the past. I now knew that I would be able to tell his story to the world.’
And what was the bond the Queen shared with Abdul Karim?
‘It was a real companionship,’ says the author. ‘That is evident in the language of the letters and diaries. Sometimes she signed off her letters with xxx for kisses. Some of the letters show a certain level of intimacy that only two people who were very close could share.’
DETAILS TELL THE STORY
A lover of including even the most minute, but interesting, details in her works, Shrabani believes ‘little details make a story’. For Victoria and Abdul, for instance, she recalls scanning the archives of Osborne House to see their menus. ‘I learnt that Victoria’s favourites were chicken curry and dal. I read her Hindustani Journals from cover to cover and picked up little nuggets, like her learning to say: “You will miss the Munshi very much” and “Hold me tight” in Urdu.
‘I learnt that she longed to taste mangoes, but she could never do that, as they would spoil on the long sea journey [from India].
‘I learnt from newspaper reports that Abdul Karim would go to pray at the Woking Mosque during Ramadan, and Muslims around the country would go to see him, as he had become quite famous.’
All of these details are included in the book and more in the 2017 movie, Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench as the Queen and Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim. Judi, incidentally, was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role.
Shrabani’s book too received rave reviews. While The Washington Times underscored that the author had ‘done solid homework’, the BBC History Magazine felt it was a ‘story [that] should have been told before’.
STOKING HER INTEREST
I rewind a bit to ask the author what got her interested in British and Indian history.
‘I think it happened naturally,’ she says. ‘As a London correspondent [for the Kolkata-based newspaper Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph], I was always looking for unusual stories.’
When not covering British politics, she also wrote about Indians in Britain. ‘My love of history took me naturally towards stories on pre-Independence India and the Raj years. I find the 19th century and the early 20th century fascinating. I am drawn to personal stories and in all my subjects whether it was the First and Second World Wars, Royalty or Empire, it was the people that I was interested in.’
It was this fascination for interesting stories about people of Indian origin that led her to write another book – this one about a Parsee lawyer who was wrongly accused of killing horses.
Titled The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer, it tells the story of a young Indian lawyer named George Edalji who hires none other than the famed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to prove his innocence!
Again, finding material for this book was a challenge, says the author. ‘I accessed libraries and archives in Portsmouth, London, Staffordshire and Birmingham,’ says Shrabani. ‘I visited George’s house in Great Wyrley and saw the church and vicarage which are still there [George’s father, Shahpur Edalji, a Parsi convert to Christianity, was vicar of Great Wyrley]. I went to find his grave in Welwyn Garden City outside London where he died.
‘I also did a lot of research on the journey of his father, who came from Mumbai to Britain and became a vicar. That bit of the story was also important to me.’
During the course of her research, Shrabani discovered several fascinating facets to the case. ‘I learnt that the police were trying to trip up Arthur Conan Doyle as he began investigating the Edalji case. They even planted false trails for him. These were nuggets of information that have never been published. Even Arthur Conan Doyle did not know that the head of the local Staffordshire police was actually trying to discredit him in the eyes of the Home Office,’ she says.
FASCINATION FOR CURRY
As we come to the end of the interview I ask her about her first book on curries titled, Curry.
‘Curry was my first book published in 1999,’ she says. ‘As a journalist coming to UK in the eighties, I was intrigued to find that curry was the most popular dish, that it was everywhere – from sandwich fillings to pizza toppings. Also, it wasn’t anything like what we ate in India.’
It was also a revelation for her to see that almost all Indian restaurants were run by Bangladeshis. ‘It was an important bit of social history. I traced the love of curry back to the time the British first went to India in search of spices and how they were seduced by Indian food. It was interesting to see how the cuisine developed over the 19th century and then the wave of immigrants after Independence made it a different dish altogether, catering to the British palate and recreating Raj nostalgia.’
So, what can readers expect from her at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature?
‘I look forward to discussing history and Empire with fellow authors and exchanging ideas and stories,’ she says. ‘My work revolves around the relationship of India and Britain over the Raj years and there are many hidden histories from that period that I have uncovered and will be talking about. My sessions cover a wide range from Royalty to crime, racism and miscarriage of justice.’
It promises to offer plenty of food for thought.
Shrabani Basu will be speaking at Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai on Friday 3 February 2023. For details, emirateslitfest.com