Think of Queen Victoria, and one thinks of Victoria and Albert, not Victoria and Abdul. Yet, in her book Victoria & Abdul author Shrabani Basu, tells of an unknown relationship between the Queen and her faithful servant Abdul Karim. With forty two years between them, their relationship was definitely unique, perhaps best described as platonic. Victoria discovered in Abdul a kindness and aptitude for work. He quickly rose from the ranks of servant to become a teacher at court, earning him the queen’s admiration. Though this was naturally accompanied with suspicion from peers and other members of the Royal family. On suspicion of such a relationship - all of their personal correspondence was destroyed. Despite this, Shrabani was lucky enough be offered some last remaining diary entries kept by members of Abdul’s family, keen to set the record straight. Shrabani then faced the tough challenge of translating these.
As a writer with a background in history, this wouldn’t have been Shrabani’s first time evaluating and analysing historical sources. Prior to Victoria & Abdul, she’d written Spy Princess - The Story of Noor Inayat Khan, again revealing her ability to bring unknown history to the fore. Yet what makes her books most exciting is the cross-cultural themes they examine in history. Shrabani now lives in Britain, which one imagines has also helped her understand and comment on two cultural sensitivities.
I recently asked Shrabani a few questions on writing and her thoughts on Victoria & Abdul:
History is at the core of most of your work, what is it about the subject that you find most fascinating?
While historical events are interesting, I am usually drawn to the personal stories during these events. I find that people have led such interesting lives and there are many stories to tell.
Does being based in London make Anglo/Indian history more intriguing to research and write about, or would this have been a subject that you would have followed regardless?
Being in London definitely helps. I have come across my characters because I have been based here. I can see the links between India and Britain and the stories that evolved from this common history.
Of course, the biggest bonus is having wonderful archives in Britain, whether it is the National Archives where I researched Spy Princess, or the British Library where I researched Victoria & Abdul. The Royal Collection at Windsor Castle was fascinating.
People in Britian have a sense of history, and private papers are also meticulously kept, which is a great help.
On Victoria and Abdul, what were the most difficult constrains during the translation process?
I needed permission to photocopy the Hindustani Journals kept in Windsor Castle, as this is generally not allowed. Becasue the writing was in a very calligraphic style of Urdu, I took it to India for translation and had at least three translators do it. First from Urdu to Hindi and then Hindi to English.
What was most memorable about meeting Abdul's family?
Meeting 85-year-old Begum Qamar Jehan in Banglaore was amazing. She had vivid recollections of her time in Karim Lodge in Agra. It was unbelievable sitting with Karim's grand neice and talking to her.
In Karachi, it was a wonderful moment when I was handed over the diaries of Abdul Karim. I couldn't wait to go to my room and start reading them. I was up nearly all night reading.
What are the stories you think writers and journalists such as yourself will be covering in fifty years from now?
The writing of history is constantly evolving, so there will be many more narratives and oral histories. Since a lot of material is online and letters have turned into emails, they will have to do their research on the basis of emails.
I must say that nothing can compare to handwritten letters and diaries though.
What's the next story that you're most eager to explore further?
I'm not sure yet. I'm busy working on trying to install the memorial for Noor Inayat Khan in Gordon Square in London and it is taking up all of my spare time. I am quite passionate about having her remembered in London and having this personal memorial. Once this is done, I will focus on my next book. I have a few ideas.