- - Wednesday, August 23, 2017


By Shrabani Basu

Vintage, $16, 352 pages

Munshi is not a word usually associated with Queen Victoria, who reigned over England for 64 years and was the epitome of formality and dignity, yet her “munshi,” an Indian equerry who was her teacher and tutor, was a remarkably important part of her life.

In “Victoria and Abdul,” (soon to be a movie starring Judi Dench), Shrabani Basu has done solid homework in her researching of a dramatic era when Britain was at the peak of its power. There has always been a certain irony in the fact that its ruler was a tiny and autocratic woman who never recovered from the death of her husband and apparently took little comfort from having given birth to nine children.

Her chief consolation lay in her power and those who helped her maintain a position in which she was rarely questioned and even her domestic authority was absolute. Her confrontations with her staff and her children were sometimes close to ludicrous, no less so when she became involved with a man of far lesser rank who caught her fancy.

What makes the munshi interesting a century later is that he was a handsome young Indian who taught the queen how to speak and write Hindustani and even cultivated her taste for curry. Most importantly, she became as devoted to him as he was to her, much to the annoyance of the royal household.

Being the queen’s munshi was a social and professional triumph in the life of Abdul Karim who was 24 when he arrived from India, the “jewel in the crown” of Victoria’s empire. She spent many decades of her life mourning for her beloved husband Prince Albert, and the later preferences she showed for certain men were often maternal and unexpectedly tender.

She loved spending time in Scotland, living mostly at Balmoral, a holiday home for the royal family to this day, and it was there she first met John Brown, a blunt-talking Scottish gillie who treated her more as a woman than as a monarch. It was reported that while teaching the queen to ride, he became so exasperated with her he addressed her as “wumman” and got away with it. He was faithful as he was brusque, however, and the queen evidently treasured his devotion and his passion for protecting her to the point that she put a ring on his finger when he died. She was also nicknamed “Mrs. Brown,” which infuriated her staff.

Karim was in many respects the reverse of Brown in his attitude toward her majesty. He was quiet and polite and reverential in his manner to her, and she especially enjoyed his elaborate Indian garb. She went so far as to offer suggestions on his fashion style. However, Karim was aware that his position put him in a socially fragile mode which his predecessor Brown had never recognized nor cared about.

Yet Karim was not only more sophisticated, he learned fast the value of the queen’s affection, which she demonstrated in letters some of which she signed “your loving Mother.” She even signed those letters in Urdu, which Karim taught her. And she improved his rank significantly with a gift of 146 acres of land in India as well as a cottage or two near the Scottish castle and favors for his very shy wife.

However, the munshi was not popular with Victoria’s household staff. Records of their complaints about him indicated that while they disliked John Brown, they “abhorred” the munshi, whom they accused of using the monarch to further his own ambitions, and perhaps they were not wrong about that. He did not hesitate to take his problems to her majesty.

As a result there was an incessant stream of complaints about Karim from people like the Prince of Wales and the viceroy of India. Even the queen’s doctor grumbled about the suave young Indian. Victoria’s reaction was invariably to defend her munshi and reprimand her critics — among them her daughters — and she was not an easy woman.

It is interesting to conjecture what kind of monarch she would have been had Prince Albert lived longer because she was always vulnerable to pressure from those she cared for, although she has always been criticized for her treatment of her children, especially her son, the Prince of Wales, who spent much of his life waiting for his mother to die.

When she did die, her munshi was instantly sent back to India, and all of the queen’s letters to him were publicly burned outside the castle in Scotland. He had something of the last laugh, however, as he returned to a country still under British rule where he now occupied a position that he owed entirely to her majesty, and he spent the rest of his life in comfort. That was Victoria’s legacy to her munshi.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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