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Book of the Week

Book of the Week: Victoria & Abdul

September 13, 2017

Book of the Week: Victoria & Abdul

Our book of the week is Victoria & Abdul by historian Shrabani Basu, the true story of Abdul Karim: a young Indian man who became friends with Queen Victoria after waiting at tables during her Golden Jubilee in 1887. The book has been adapted into a film, starring Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon and Eddie Izzard, due for release in the UK on the 15th of September.

Sent from Agra to participate in the Golden Jubilee, Karim unexpectedly found a friend in the queen herself. Despite many attempts by outside influences to destroy it, their friendship remained strong for many years and Karim became one of her closest confidants as well as her teacher. He taught her Urdu and helped to teach her about the realities of colonial India throughout the later years of her reign.

They showed each other a different perspective of the world. Basu explains, “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.” Karim opened Queen Victoria’s eyes to the world outside of England, and offered her true friendship when so many of the people around her were avoiding her and only serving their own interests.

Basu discovered the relationship between the two when she visited Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where she saw portraits of Karim presented as a nobleman. Over the course of several years, she researched this relationship - which was not an easy task when most of the evidence of Karim’s existence was destroyed by the queen’s relatives after her death. However, one thing that remained untouched was Victoria’s writing in what we now know as Urdu. In these exercise books the elderly queen describes visiting Abdul when he was ill, taking tea with his wife, and meeting his cat’s kittens.

She was sometimes a mother figure to him, sometimes a friend. He was her teacher, her son, and one of her closest companions. Their relationship, and the reactions of the people around them to it, speaks volumes about the time that they lived in and the kind of people that they were.

  • Victoria & Abdul cover
    Victoria & Abdul

    The tall, handsome Abdul Karim was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. An assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail, he suddenly found himself a personal attendant to the Empress of India herself. Within a year, he was established as a powerful figure at court.

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