But the story of Abdul Karim’s journey across the seas from Agra’s Central Jail to Queen Victoria’s hallowed court in the Old Blighty is bound to generate curiosity.
Author Shrabani Basu’s latest book, ‘Victoria & Abdul’ due to be released in the City on Thursday explores the intimate romance between the Queen and the ex- jail clerk, and the political turbulence of the times. The book is set at a time when a multiplicity of independence struggles were threatening a sunset on the mighty British Empire.
Basu, who is in Bangalore to promote her book is not entirely in unfamiliar territory, when it comes to unwritten pages of history. Her previous work, ‘Spy Princess’ too charted the surreptitious tales of Noor Inayat Khan, a British undercover agent during World War II, and more curiously, a descendent of Tipu Sultan.
“I have always had a fascination for reconstructing forgotten characters from history who have played crucial roles in charting its course,” Basu says and adds that her latest work too involved considerable research and reconstruction. “Victoria and Abdul’ took me three years to write and was reconstructed on the basis of journals and letters of communication between Queen Victoria’s Viceroy to India and the Secretary of State,” she says.
The similarities between Basu’s ‘Spy Princess’ and ‘Victoria and Abdul’ also extend to the fact that both are tales of Indian Muslims. However, she is quick to dispel any suggestion of a pattern here and offers a rational explanation. “The only reason that the characters are Muslims is because Muslims were the first to leave Indian shores. Hindus would not cross the seas because of their beliefs,” she says.
Basu says that the romance and the political unrest it created was captivating as the empress was prepared to go to great lengths to endorse the humble jail clerk. “The book is full of political intrigue as the queen went out of her way to protect and espouse the ideas of Abdul. In fact she learnt Urdu and even contributed to 13 journals in Urdu,” she says.
Of particular interest to Basu is the tale of political aftershocks of the improbable romance. “The relationship in fact drove her own men to the extent of asking her to step down on grounds of insanity,” she says. Basu adds that one of the most fascinating discoveries during the course of her research was “the fact that Queen Victoria was branded as being off her head,” by members of her own court.