Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The queen who loved love

The Queen, 2006
The Queen, 2006

With missiles soaring in the air, hurricanes wiping out the earth, racist demonstrations mounting everywhere, is it any wonder we are left shaking and quaking in our heels? Just in time, out comes a light-hearted movie to calm our anxieties and pull us out of this deep, dark and fearful hole.

The timing could not be more perfect as it deals with racism at a prickly state of intensity. Most likely it will solicit a smile.

Victoria and Abdul directed by British filmmaker Stephen Frears (The Queen, 2006) just released his latest film, an adaptation of the book Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant.

The relationship, to say the least, was bizarre. The most powerful woman in the world befriending an underling, half her age, an Indian and a Muslim was a mystery. Did it border on romance, no one really knows. It was a dark hidden secret and remained so for over a century. So shocking was the alliance that the minute she died, her son, Edward VII erased all reference to Abdul-Karim. He hastily disguised, destroyed, burned and buried every trace of Abdul-Karim, never ever to be revealed. It remained so until destiny intervened.

One day, as all stories go, in 2003, a journalist by the name of Shrabani Basu was touring the summer home of Queen Victoria on the Isle of Wight, when she came across the bust of an Indian servant named Abdul-Karim. Next she saw a portrait of the same Indian servant. Why would that be? He was painted to look more like a nobleman, book in hand, looking sideways and then yet another portrait with a soft gentleness about it. She thought that rather unusual and spent the next five years uncovering the story of Victoria and Abdul.

None of her biographers had uncovered her secret. Just by chance Basu asked to see the queen’s Hindustani journals, requested for the first time. Other biographers would have never been able to understand it.

Abdul-Karim tried to teach the Queen Hindu, her exercises were in her manuscript. As Basu reached for it, a blotting paper fell out. It had never been opened in 100 years.

Victoria married her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg and Gotha in 1840. Their love for each other was legendary, but after 21 years of marriage and nine children Albert died at age 42 leaving an inconsolable Victoria, withdrew altogether from public. She wore black for the rest of her life.

The court devised a plan to appoint a former servant to Prince Albert, John Brown, hoping to help the queen in her bereavement. The plan worked, only too well. Brown a rough, tough brash Scot, took over. He scoffed at court protocol, and would enter her room without permission. His unorthodox ways amused her and their closeness caused a stir in court. No one knows the exact mature of their relationship, but she was called Mrs Brown behind her back.

The scandal forced Prince Edward to ask Brown to break it up. Furious and frantic, she never forgave him nor ever knew the reason why he left.

Four years later, on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee and having been declared Empress of India, she decided to visit the territories. At a state dinner, despite strict orders given to the only two Indian servants allowed, Mohamed and Abdul, never to make eye contact with the queen, Abdul-Karim did.

For a fraction of a second the queen caught the gaze of a young, tall, handsome Indian, Muslim servant and for less than a fraction of a second, with great poise and Imperial demeanour she returned his gaze.

Catch the incomparable Judi Dench at her finest. 

The servants are ordered to return to England with the queen. That Abdul was special to the queen was crystal clear. He impressed her with his chicken curry, told her stories of his India and as she said, spoke to her as a human being and not a monarch.

She promoted him to Munschi, meaning teacher, appointed Mohamed as his servant, raised his salary, and bestowed high honours on him. Unheard of privileges including riding in her carriage, travelling together in Europe, prime seats at opera, banquets were afforded him. 

Tongues never stopped wagging. He was called the brown John Brown — she did not care. 

The extent of the relation remained unknown, except to them. Abdul was married. His wife was brought over to England and she would often have tea with them. She would sign her letters, “your loving mother”, or “my closest friend”. 

A passionate loving woman, the most powerful in the world, cherished love more than power, titles or her own reputation. Queen of UK, Britain, Ireland and empress of India, she was a lover of love in all its forms.

She insisted that Abdul be among the principal mourners — a small group of family and friends at her Winsor Castle. Edward complied and Abdul was the last to see her body before her casket was closed.

Whatever love they shared, it was buried with them. 

The film is a lighthearted romp behind the palace walls, and whether it is in a theatre near you, will be, or will not, it is a must see, if only for the pleasure of watching the queen herself, Miss Judi Dench.

“The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) 



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