As part of the festivities to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, celebrating 50 years on the throne, the Queen hosted dozens of foreign rulers at a lavish banquet. She led a grand procession to Westminster Abbey in open carriage, escorted by the Indian cavalry, greeted screaming crowds on her palace balcony, and enjoyed fireworks in the garden. But of all the jubilee’s memorable events, it was the queen’s encounter with Abdul Karim that became the most significant. The young man had arrived in the United Kingdom as a “gift from India,” one intended to help Victoria address the Indian princes at her banquet. Karim would quickly prove to be the queen’s most trusted confidant, and the most despised member of the royal court.
Queen Victoria’s unusually close friendship with her Indian servant began at the 1887 celebration and spanned 14 years, a period captured in the new movie Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench as the titular queen. Karim was the queen’s beloved munshi, the teacher who gave her daily Urdu lessons, educated her on Indian affairs, and introduced her to curry. Queen Victoria in turn showered him with gifts, titles and honors, much to the resentment of the royal family. When the queen died in 1901, her children burned every letter she sent Karim, whom they unceremoniously deported back to India. Yet his record lives on, thanks in large part to his diary, preserved by generations of descendants.
That diary was only recently unearthed by Shrabani Basu, the historian who wrote the movie’s source text.
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Queen Victoria’s first impression of Karim was recorded in her diaries, where she deemed him “tall with a fine serious countenance.” After their jubilee duties concluded, Karim and Buxshe traveled with the queen to her summer home on the Isle of Wight. There, Karim distinguished himself by surprising the sovereign with one of his favorite recipes. Using spices he had brought from Agra, Karim cooked a chicken curry with dal and pilau. According to Victoria biographer A.N. Wilson, the queen declared the dish “excellent” and added it to her regular menu rotation.
Eager to immerse herself further in Indian culture, Victoria asked Karim to teach her Urdu, or, as it was known at the time, Hindustani. Their lessons initially seemed somewhat relaxed. “Am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants,” Victoria wrote. “It is a great interest to me, for both the language and the people.” That interest soon turned to zeal. In an effort to improve communication between teacher and student, the queen doubled Karim’s English lessons, and he was a fast learner. Within two months, Victoria had ceased sending Karim instructions through her staff and begun writing him directly. Within a few more, she had bestowed upon him the title of Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim, making him her official Indian clerk and relieving him of his menial duties.
Link to the rest at Smithsonian
PG is certain that Judy Dench must have appeared in a terrible production at some time during her career, but he’s never seen it.