A new version of Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria and Abdul is now out after it was made into a film featuring Judi Dench. The book offers fascinating glimpses into the British queen’s relationship with her Indian assistant. Here’s an excerpt published with permission from Bloomsbury.
The Queen fussed over her Munshi and was always keen to show him off to her European relations. In the summer of 1892, when her granddaughter, sixteen-year-old Princess Marie (Prince Alfred’s eldest daughter), arrived in Windsor with her fiancé, Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the Queen insisted they meet her Indian secretary.
Marie, already anxious that ‘Grandmama Queen’ might disapprove of the match, waited nervously for her in the Great Corridor at Windsor. The Queen entered on the arm of her turbaned Indian attendant, smiled at the shy young couple and spoke to Prince Ferdinand in perfect German, asking him about his father.
The next day, the awestruck couple were told that “the Munshi would like to make Ferdinand’s acquaintance”. It was arranged that they would come to the Queen’s private sitting room to meet him.
As Ferdinand entered he saw the Queen sitting at her writing table. On an easel beside her was an oil portrait of Ferdinand’s mother, a beautiful Portuguese Infanta. “Wunderschon,” said the Queen. “Wunderschon,” replied the tongue-tied Ferdinand.
The young Princess recalled how the silence was broken by the click of the door handle and the tall figure of the Munshi who stood in the doorway. He was dressed in gold with a white turban. Without moving from the doorway, he raised “one honey-coloured hand to his heart, his lips and his forehead. He neither moved into the room nor spoke.”
The young couple could only stare at this vision in silk and gold. No one spoke for several minutes. The Queen – evidently pleased with the effect the Munshi had had – continued to smile.
The Munshi remained standing at the door, manifesting, as young Marie said, “no emotion at all, simply waiting in Eastern dignity for those things that were to come to pass”. Ferdinand remained frozen and stared at the Munshi. Finally, Marie decided to take the initiative and walked over to Karim and shook his hand. Her fiancé followed her.
The Queen, satisfied with the encounter, and pleased to have indulged her Munshi with a glimpse of the Royal bridegroom, finally allowed the couple, “who were only too pleased to escape”, to leave the room.
Lead image credit: A still from the film Victoria and Abdul.