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Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant

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The tall, handsome Abdul Karim was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. An assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail, he suddenly found himself a personal attendant to the Empress of India herself. Within a year, he was established as a powerful figure at court, becoming the queen's teacher, or Munshi, and instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs. Devastated by the death of John Brown, her Scottish gillie, the queen had at last found his replacement. But her intense and controversial relationship with the Munshi led to a near-revolt in the royal household. Victoria & Abdul examines how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the Empire, and his influence over the queen at a time when independence movements in the sub-continent were growing in force. Yet, at its heart, it is a tender love story between an ordinary Indian and his elderly queen, a relationship that survived the best attempts to destroy it.

224 pages, Hardcover

First published April 1, 2010

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 346 reviews
Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,861 reviews370 followers
March 15, 2018
I saw the film based on this book last year and really enjoyed it, but I had to wonder how much the screenwriters had fiddled with the facts to make a more engaging film. When I saw that this year’s PopSugar challenge included a category called “Book made into a movie that you’ve already seen,” I immediately knew which book I would be reading.

I was grateful for the author’s footnotes and references—she certainly did her research. I think we all feel we “know” about Queen Victoria, but I found I really only had a general impression of the woman. I had no idea until seeing the film that she had Indian people serving in her household or that she had become close friends with one of them.

In many ways, this is a story of a lonely woman who finds a friend and a new interest in life. I would agree with the author, that Her Maj was a romantic at heart and the exoticness of India (in comparison to Britain) was what drew her to Abdul Karim and his culture. I was impressed by her devotion to the study of Urdu and her proficiency in that language at the end of her life—she got a late start, but made excellent headway on a language that was far different than others she was used to.

As Abdul became one of her favourites, it was inevitable that he would become the target of people who were jealous. The Queen believed much of the rivalry to be a result of racism, and I would have to agree with her assessment. If Abdul had been a white man (like John Brown), there would still have been resentment, but not the volcanic rage that seemed to permeate the Royal Household regarding this Indian man. It must have been a very lonely life for Abdul, as well, with the other Indians begrudging him his relationship with the Queen, not to mention the hatred of the Caucasian members of staff.

Regarding the film versus the book, I think the film stayed pretty true to the facts. There were a few events that were left out (you can’t include everything) and a few things where the order of events may have been slightly changed, but it remained very true to the feel of the book. Overall, I would say that I enjoyed the film more.

An interesting window into the life of an intriguing woman.
Profile Image for Aditi.
920 reviews1,332 followers
November 16, 2017
“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you...I could walk through my garden forever.”

----Alfred Tennyson

Shrabani Basu, an Indian author has penned an honest memoir about a forgotten man who mattered the most in the life of Queen Victoria in her book called, Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant. Abdul Karim was just a young man when he first met the British monarch, Queen Victoria and since that day, till the day, the queen died, their friendship stayed invaluable and that reached beyond the walls of Osborne House to Buckingham Palace to India thereby creating an uproar amongst the royals and the British Empire. Very predictably, after the death of the Queen, her family erased every single proof of the Queen and her munshi's friendship, yet somehow and mostly through hard work, dedication and by miracle, author, Shrabani Basu, has successfully resurrected the forgotten Indian Muslim man who became an integral part of Queen Victoria's life through this memoir.


Tall and handsome Abdul was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. Within a year, Abdul had grown to become a powerful figure at court, the Queen's teacher, or Munshi, her counsel on Urdu and Indian affairs, and a friend close to the Queen's heart. "I am so very fond of him.," Queen Victoria would write in 1888, "He is so good and gentle and understanding....a real comfort to me."

This marked the beginning of the most scandalous decade in Queen Victoria's long reign. Devastated first by the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and then her personal servant John Brown in 1883, Queen Victoria quickly found joy in an intense and controversial relationship with her Munshi, who traveled everywhere with her, cooked her curries and cultivated her understanding of the Indian sub-continent--a region, as Empress of India, she was long intrigued by but could never visit. The royal household roiled with resentment, but their devotion grew in defiance of all expectation and the societal pressures of their time and class and lasted until the Queen's death on January 22, 1901.

Drawn from never-before-seen first-hand documents that had been closely guarded secrets for a century, Shrabani Basu's Victoria & Abdul is a remarkable history of the last years of the 19th century in English court, an unforgettable view onto the passions of an aging Queen, and a fascinating portrayal of how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the British Empire.

To present a mohar (a golden coin commissioned by the then Indian government), Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh, two Indian clerks were summoned upon by the British Empire. Upon presenting the mohar on Queen's Golden Jubilee celebration at England, Abdul Karim instantly catches the eye of the aging, mournful and bored Queen Victoria, who along with his partner, Buksh, were immediately hired by the royal household as servants to serve the queen. Gradually, Karim rises above his pay-grade and status as a servant to be the Queen's Munshi by charming and impressing her with his deep knowledge about India, its history, religions and cultures that the Queen found to be extremely enlightening. Not only that, Karim learns to win the trust of the queen, who considered him as a close confidant amongst the English servants as well as her own family who are constantly spying upon her. Even though their friendship irked everyone in the royal household yet the Queen was hell-bound on making Munshi a permanent member of her family by inviting his wife as well as other members of Karim's family to live in the palatial complex where the Queen's previous royal servant stayed, with whom too she formed a close bond of love and friendship.

Eventually, through ups and downs and through many challenges and battles, their friendship survived and grew more strong with each passing day, until the day the Queen breathed for the last time. Immediately, the Munshi along with his family was thrown out of England and also burned all the letters and photographs that were exchanged between the two, in order to erase any proof of their friendship from the face of the world. But history and truth can't be erased, as Shrabani Basu pens this memoir with honesty and enough justice about the forgotten man who was Queen Victoria's best friend in her later years.

The author' writing style is extremely articulate and often elegant enough to peak the readers' interest all through out. The plot is not only laced with well-researched facts, but also with emotions that will strike the readers while reading about Karim's enlightening journey. The narrative in the book is light and free-flowing. The pacing is bit slow, since the author has penned the memoir with lots of depth that will let the readers form a clear perspective about the characters portrayed in this memoir, besides the Munshi.

The real life characters from the past are heavily well-researched and well developed, especially the Queen and her Munshi, who are bound to come alive right before the eyes of the readers, while they are reading the book. Also the background details of the Osborne House where the Queen resided is intricately and vividly painted through the memoir and the readers will be able to precept the background along with the scenes very easily. Since its a historical memoir based on facts and dates, the author has managed to lace this memoir with light humor now and then, to keep things thoroughly interesting and subtly funny.

The friendship that quickly developed between the Queen and her Munshi is very much well arrested by the author. Also the family life of Karim in India too is well described in the book, thereby letting the readers take a peak in to this knowledgeable man's background. Basu did a great work to keep the memory of this man safe which was forgotten by the British as well as the Indians after the death of the Queen, thereby giving a full and proper justice to this humble, well informed and handsome's life.

In a nutshell, this is a must read enlightening and poignant book that must be read by every Indians, to learn how an Indian, who were then despised by the British, won the heart of the ultimate emperor of India by narrating her the rich tales of Indian history and culture.

Verdict: A truly and deeply moving memoir of the blissful friendship between Queen Victoria and her Munshi, Abdul Karim.

Courtesy: Thanks to the publishers from Bloomsbury India for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,735 reviews1,469 followers
March 20, 2019
The British royal family tried to erase Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria's devoted Hindustani instructor and adviser in Indian affairs (1887-1901) from history, and yet they failed to succeed! This is quite a story! Read about him here.

The book’s content is interesting, and it is great that that which before has been hidden from view is now brought into the open!

Yet the book needs better editing. Portions are tedious. The text is repetitive. Quotes are excessive. For example, the long sentences of Urdu need not have been included.

The audiobook version performed by Elizabeth Jusicki is clear. The pace at which it is read is however exceedingly slow. This is the first time I have found it necessary to adjust the speed to 1.25x!


We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals 4 stars
Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire 4 stars
Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant 3 stars
Queen Victoria's Mysterious Daughter: A Biography of Princess Louise TBR
Profile Image for ☼Bookish pam in Virginia☼ .
1,173 reviews47 followers
August 1, 2017
~ review copy provided

~side note #1
Since there is a movie tie-in, you might be misled into thinking that VICTORIA & ABDUL is a historical novel, or something contrived, very much an 'adapted history'. It is Not. This is a solid historical work that has been well researched. It reads like good history, but if you are looking for a dive into the heart and soul of the characters, you might just want to wait for the movie.

~side note #2
What's amazing to me is that someone has found something new to say about Queen Victoria. It's not like this isn't a well studied area. And it delights me to no end to know that there are still dark archival crannies with little stories hidden in them that are dying to be told.

This one, no doubt, needed to wait until the world was sufficiently altered enough that it was possible to research and publish a history about someone who wasn't a white male. You might think that this can't possibly still 'be a thing'. But I can tell you first hand, that it's only in the last decade or so that women, regular people, and minorities were found to be worthy fodder for grad students. Classical White-Male university history wonks, have a strong preference for powerful, preferably war mongering, white-males. (Apologies to enlightened Historians.)

~But I entirely digress.

VICTORIA & ABDUL is a wonderful read. The author gives us lots of delicious detail about the times, mood, and place. She describes things like the Queen's railroad coach and rooms exceedingly well. I felt myself dropped into place watching Victoria's entourage having parties and visiting Europe.

I previously indicated that you weren't going to see inside the hearts of Victoria and Abdul like you will in a historical novel or the movie, but that's not entirely accurate. What you get are insights into their thinking. Basu gives us telling snippets from their own writings. And where we might fail to see the significance, Basu lights the way. Certainly, when you finish this book you will understand the care and attention that Queen and servant had for one another. The paintings, the notes, the conversations all present to us a wonderful tale that has not been told before.

October 13, 2017
I totally enjoyed this book and learned a lot about the interaction of the British royalty regarding the people of India and how Victoria ruled them. I understand this is to be a movie soon and I did find the writing and the experiences portrayed to be engrossing and interesting.

We know so much about Queen Victoria and yet this very important facet of her life has been in a sense under reported. Victoria developed an engrossing relationship with Abdul while incensing her staff, her family and those around her. Her care and concern for Abdul seemed limitless, while her family and her staffs' inability to accept him and those of his kind made for a disquieting read into racial equality and its worth in Victorian England.

Both main characters were charismatic. They infused each other with confidence and importance and developed an intense friendship which nothing was able to penetrate as hard as some tried to break it apart. It was sad to read of Abdul's demise in standing following Victoria's death and how his life of privilege while being nourished in the bosom of Victoria turned against him when she died. He, it seemed, truly loved and cherished her while she seemed to share the very same feelings towards him. She, the Queen of England during its rise in colonialism found it within her to take into her heart this Indian young man and by doing so thus embraced the Indian people which she tenderly ruled.

Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for the opportunity to read this novel for an unbiased review.
435 reviews10 followers
September 14, 2017
I can easily see why someone who has never heard about the friendship between Victoria and Abdul would find this book so engaging. It WAS an unexpected and fascinating friendship -- the queen's loyalty to him despite her family and staff's extreme dislike for him was truly remarkable. Basu does a commendable job digging into the evidence, even transcribing/translating large portions of what he wrote into journals.

So I was surprised to find at the end that I didn't feel like I really knew this guy. His gushing humility in his writings (which might be a cultural thing) doesn't seem to mesh with the ambitious guy who adores receiving gifts and constantly asks for recognition, promotions and titles and so on. Can't hate the guy for being ambitious, but why exactly did nearly everyone in Victoria's household hate him so much? I just couldn't tell whether the hatred is best explained as jealousy and racism or whether he himself was genuinely provoking some of the anger -- being sweet and humble when he was with Victoria but imperious and pompous when she wasn't around.

Probably because of that, I never really understood their friendship as it's laid out in this book. Basu seems oddly unwilling to analyze it (or unable, based on existing evidence, since Victoria's family demanded that all letters between Abdul and Victoria be destroyed after her death). Was Abdul a particularly gifted flatterer who charmed his way into the heart of a rich, lonely older woman to gain wealth and status for himself? Or was it a genuine meeting of the minds? Both? And if it was a genuine meeting of the minds, what exactly did she see in him, beyond the fact that Victoria loved the whole notion of India and he was a willing teacher? Was her adamant refusal to see the merit in any criticism of Abdul a result of her (admirable) resistance to her family and staff's virulent racism? Or was it (also/instead) stubbornness that reared up when her family and staff did not behave as she demanded they do?

Basu leans heavily to the "jealousy/racism" side of the debate, and seems to find him a genuinely nice guy, although she does not shy away from describing some of Abdul's more pompous actions.
But I'm not wholly convinced.

I tend to think the reality of their friendship was somewhere in between -- that Abdul did provide her with attention and flattery she really craved and that she was more open to friendship with an Indian than most upper-crust Brits of the time were, but that he WAS flattering and charming her for his own ambitious, avaricious ends. That her household staff WAS rife with jealousy and racism, but also were right in seeing greediness as well as friendship in Victoria and Abdul's relationship.

Maybe I'm biased. But there are multiple times in history when a very wealthy, lonely older woman has been befriended by a much younger, male charmer and flatterer with his own ends in mind. Queen Elizabeth I and Essex come to mind, as do Georgia O'Keeffe and Juan Hamilton. These friendships often fulfill a real need on both sides and they aren't always spurred by purely malicious intent. Still. They leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I worry that casting the hatred that Abdul aroused among Victoria's household as simply the result of jealousy and racism over-simplifies a more complex, maybe more interesting, but less flattering, story about each of them.
Profile Image for Adam.
Author 21 books89 followers
August 3, 2013
In about 1886, Queen Victoria acquired a number of paid Indian servants, mostly from Agra. They were employed to serve at her dining tables. She found them interesting and on the whole charming. One of them, Abdul Karim, soon became her favourite. She adopted him as her personal secretary. After a short while, he began teaching her to read, write, and speak Urdu. He became known as the Queen's 'munshi' (secretary or scribe, particularly one with a mastery of many languages). She took lessons daily from him for the rest of her long life, and was a successful student.

The Queen became very fond of her munshi. This fondness was reciprocated. Abdul Karim assumed the role of her male confidant, replacing the uneducated John Brown who had died a few years before his arrival at Court. As time progressed, Victoria showered Abdul with gifts, property, and honours. His ever increasing popularity with the Queen displeased the rest of the Royal Family and many members of the Royal Household staff. There were many intrigues to discredit Abdul in Victoria's eyes, but all of these failed. She defended him like a lion and her trust in him grew.

When Victoria died in 1901, Abdul's fortunes reversed rapidly. His extensive correspondence with the Queen was confiscated and destroyed and he was deported from Great Britain with his family. He spent the last few years of his life in Agra, where his family was harassed by the British authorities acting on the orders of Edward VII long after his death.

Ms Basu's book about the relationship netween Abdul and Victoria is thoroughly researched, very detailed, and quite interesting. However, I found that her writing lacked something indefinable that might have helped to give her interesting subject that sparkle which other writers of history , such as Alistair Horne, manage to achieve.
Profile Image for Gina *loves sunshine*.
1,883 reviews69 followers
April 19, 2018
This book was very interesting and I enjoyed getting to know the account of Queen Victoria and her entourage. The details of the time period - the customs, the travel from property to property, the staff, the clothes, the hunting, parties, the close relationship between the 2 - all fun stuff to read.

I am sad the characters didn't come more to life, it lacked that emotion coming off the page. I am one of those readers who really needs that extra something to really draw me in when I am reading a non-fiction type book - and this book lacked that a bit. But still 3 stars for an interesting story! I imagine this is great on the big screen!! I am sure the movie really brought the characters out!
Profile Image for Cynda .
1,272 reviews146 followers
December 30, 2018
Have read mlre than half, Not interested in continuing. A friend said the movie bored her, and the book would probably bore me. She was right. Not enough story there to make up a book that takes up my time. Time to cut my losses and move on.
Profile Image for Lilanthi.
115 reviews
February 9, 2018
•‘A most unusual friendship, one that, however divisive it had been, had brought comfort to a lonely Queen in the twilight years of her reign.’ - Daily Mail
A masterfully told story that is a melange of history, drama and fantasy.’-The Dawn

Quotes from the words of the Queen's beloved Munshi:
• "With the month of June this account of ten years of my life is completed. To me the little book is like the Compound Perfume wherein are gathered and mixed together the scent of many different flowers: and as some flowers are fragrant and attractive and others are offensive, so some episodes in my life are joyous and others are sorrowful and unpleasant"
• "We have all a battle to fight. Some fight for God and some for themselves, to some comes success, to others failure. Every individual, every family, every country each has its own interest to serve, its own battles to fight and its own joys and sorrows."
• "The older anyone becomes the less reasonable they are to argument in anything effecting the personality of a favourite"
• "How suddenly does death sometime steal upon us. Truly it is the terminator of delights, the separator of Friends, the Devastation of Palaces and Houses and the replenisher of graves."

Details of the grandeur of the Indian architecture : "Marble columns inlaid with rich gemstones – lapis lazuli, garnet, jade, jasper and carnelian "

• "As the ‘Dear Abdul’ letters burnt in the cold February air, the Munshi stood in silence. Without his Queen he was defenceless and alone. Postcards and letters from the Queen, dated from Windsor Castle, Balmoral, the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert and hotels across Europe, crackled in the flames. The fairytale – that had begun the day the young Abdul Karim had entered the Court in 1887 – was over."
Profile Image for Stephanie.
1,616 reviews74 followers
May 14, 2018
This novel drove me crazy. At first, it was very dry and factual, which was fine with me after two rather stressful horror novels. I was using this novel as a palate cleanser, of sorts.
But the petty jealousies, racism, classism, and bullshit that the *entire* household staff (support and care system) that took care of Queen Victoria drove me absolutely batty. It disgusted me so badly, I couldn’t enjoy the novel at all. I can understand completely why at one point why the Queen got so pissed off, she swiped everything on her desk off it, in one sweeping motion. I’d have started throwing shit at people, no joke. And the fired them. But then again, I wouldn’t have apologized for my being angry like Queen Victoria did almost every time these spouts happened, and I don’t put up with that shit. AT ALL.
So while others are going on about the writing style of the author, the storyline, and the characters, I can only say that this novel was incredibly difficult to make it through to the ending. Even with the great narration abilities of Elizabeth Jasiki, who took on every single Indian name, word, or city with no problems whatsoever.
The entire novel was like this: Munshi Abdul Karim was invited somewhere, or got some kind of recognition; then the whole household got jealous and pissy, then someone went and told the Queen that they all hated her Munshi was invited/honored, then the Queen got mad, and then either wrote letters to the entire staff trying to correct them of their failings or one specific person, and then the Queen would later apologize for her words in another letter. Every. Single. Time. ARRRRGH....!

3 stars, and not really recommended, unless you can look past these awful people and their massive failings.
Profile Image for Jo.
988 reviews26 followers
July 6, 2018
Victoria and Abdul
By Shrabani Basu

The tall, handsome Abdul Karim was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. An assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail, he suddenly found himself a personal attendant to the Empress of India herself. Within a year, he was established as a powerful figure at court, becoming the queen's teacher, or Munshi, and instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs. Devastated by the death of John Brown, her Scottish gillie, the queen had at last found his replacement. But her intense and controversial relationship with the Munshi led to a near-revolt in the royal household. Victoria & Abdul examines how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the Empire, and his influence over the queen at a time when independence movements in the sub-continent were growing in force. Yet, at its heart, it is a tender love story between an ordinary Indian and his elderly queen, a relationship that survived the best attempts to destroy it
This book was such a surprise and high lights a very unlikely but special friendship. Both Victoria and Abdul were marginalized, Abdul was racially slurred and looked down on because of his humble beginnings, whereas Victoria was surrounded by overbearing misogynists.

This was utterly charming.
Profile Image for Lilirose.
489 reviews57 followers
April 10, 2018
Non so neanche da dove cominciare per parlare di tutto quello che non va in questo libro, penso che "inutile" sia la definizione più efficace però.
Innanzitutto è una vicenda piuttosto insulsa: un giovane indiano arriva a Londra come servitore della regina Vittoria e lei lo prende a benvolere, tanto da renderlo il membro più importante del suo entourage, scatenando molti malumori. Le cinque pagine di introduzione bastano a darci un'idea chiara della storia, le 300 pagine seguenti sono semplicemente ripetizioni e lungaggini. Qualunque avvenimento, anche il più insignificante (sono tutti insignificanti in realtà), ci viene descritto almeno tre volte, con tanto di estratti di lettere e brani di diari: insomma tanto rumore per nulla.
Lo stile poi è piatto e spesso retorico; se ci aggiungiamo la mancanza di obiettività dell'autrice (palesemente sempre a favore del conterraneo Abdul Karim), si capirà come questo sia un libro che non consiglierei a nessuno, nemmeno agli amanti della Regina Vittoria e delle biografie, dato che io rientro in entrambe le categorie e l'ho apprezzato così poco.
Profile Image for Abantika(hiltonjenkin).
429 reviews77 followers
November 17, 2017
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‘Victoria and Abdul: The Story of The Queen’s Closest Confidant’ by Shrabani Basu, was a fascinating read about an aging monarch and her closest confidant.
Two Indians, Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh were summoned by the British Empire to present a ‘Mohor’ to the Queen. Upon presentation of which Abdul Karim catches the attention of the Queen and is immediately hired as her personal servant. And this marks the beginning of one of the most controversial and mysterious friendship in history.
Karim kept escalating the ladder and became her ‘munshi’ (/teacher), rasing eyebrows in the royal household. They formed a very special bond of love and friendship which kept on growing stronger by the day. Karim’s cultural influence on Queen Victoria and her keen interest in getting to know the sub-continent was taken well at all.
It was a delight to get to know this vulnerable, compassionate and personal side of the Queen, where she befriended an Indian-Muslim and confided in him; where she promoted and stood up for him till she breathed her last breath.
But as soon as Queen Victoria passed away, quite predictably Karim’s family was thrown out of England and all the letters and photographs exchanged between him and the Queen were burnt. Efforts were made to keep no trace of their tender and unusual, love and friendship.
But, Sharabani Basu does a wonderful job in reminding us about the forgotten friendship. Her writing is very easy to follow and is engrossing. Her vivid descriptions of the happenings and the surroundings, transports you directly to the Victorian Era. The snippets from newspapers and entries from journals, showed how well researched the book is and made my journey through the novel so much more interesting. Also, the pictures of the Queen and Abdul Karim and others were a treat to the eyes. However, you may find the pace a bit on the slower side and honestly, I’m not really a fan of movie tie-up book covers.
My Verdict: ‘Victoria and Abdul: The Story of The Queen’s Closest Confidant’ by Shrabani Basu is an informative and enlightening novel which almost seems like fiction. It is very well researched but is still debatable. Will recommended it to the fans of both historical fiction and non-fiction.
Profile Image for Laurie.
953 reviews37 followers
August 6, 2017
By the time Queen Victoria started the last decade of her life, she had lost her beloved Prince Albert in 1861 and her Scottish personal servant, John Brown, in 1883- many people speculated that she and Brown were secretly married, they were so close. She was a sad and lonely woman. Then, unexpectedly, she found a new friend: Abdul Karim, from India.

He arrived as part of a contingent of Indians, a gift, as it were, to her for her Golden Jubilee. While a number of high ranking Indians visited England for the event, Karim was sent over (along with several others) as a servant. At first he waited at table, but he moved on swiftly. Despite a language barrier, the Queen and Karim began to communicate. He was solicitous and caring. Soon he was teaching her Hindi; soon after that he became a secretary. He took care of her correspondence and performed other duties. When they were apart, they wrote each other constantly. As they became closer, Victorian began to advance him in rank and give him valuable gifts and honors. This brought out jealously in both the servant’s quarters and the court- especially the court. He was being allowed to walk, sit, and ride with the court elite, and this made them furious. He was from the lower middle class, he wasn’t a Christian, and, worst of all, he had brown skin. Obviously inferior! He was with her until her death; the last person to be with her body before it was put into the coffin. Needless to say, the court instantly stripped him of as many things as they could, demanded all of Victoria’s letters to him and burned them on site. He went home to India.

Having read a couple of biographies of Queen Victoria, I knew much of this story already, but it was written from the court’s point of view- that Karim (known as the Munshi, a Hindi term for ‘secretary’) took horrible advantage of the Queen. But the author found Karim’s family in Karachi, and they had a trunk full of his journals. This unlocked the past and gave the Munshi’s side of the story.

Because I’d read about Victoria’s life before, I found some of the book tedious. But if you’ve not read about the Queen’s later life, it won’t be tedious. It’s a short, interesting book that shows us how some things never change.
Profile Image for Patrick.
76 reviews19 followers
April 26, 2018
Well, this was a surprise.

Victoria and Abdul was April's selection for our office book club, much to the chagrin of most of our office book club. We let one of our less enthused members pick April's book, you see. We thought it would encourage them to be more involved. That's how I ended up within a country mile of Victoria and Abdul. I can't say I would've found my way to this book otherwise. Works of historical non-fiction about Queen Victoria isn't exactly high on my to-read list. I wholeheartedly expected this book to be, Britishly put, a dull affair.

I was wrong.

Abdul came out of nowhere scored a gig as the Queen top personal advisor. You'd figure a position like that would have you set for life, right? I mean, if the Queen says you're legit then that should count for a lot. She's the Queen! But as it turned out, members of the Queen's staff hated the guy from day one, and did their best to discredit and remove him. Despite his status, Abdul had to deal with a ton of classism and racism.

It's a surprisingly interesting story.
Profile Image for Komal .
154 reviews30 followers
May 20, 2011
I'm not a history buff but I couldn't put this book down. Basu writes in an accessible manner. She writes candidly about their friendship - though unlike the Royal Household, she is entirely sympathetic - and and includes letters and telegrams whenever possible. The story of Abdul Karim and Victoria is fascinating - I still have trouble believing it happened.
Profile Image for Krystal.
386 reviews24 followers
June 14, 2017
This book provided a vivid glimpse into that relationship of epic historical contradiction between apparent friendliness and the power differentials inherent in colonialist arrangements.
Profile Image for Heather.
580 reviews8 followers
September 29, 2017

The central mystery in this story is Who Was Abdul Karim?  Was he a selfless aide and friend to Queen Victoria or was he an enterprising, self-promoting, dangerous con man like the people around her believed?  I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.

There is no question that he was a devoted servant of the Queen.  He gave her Urdu lessons every day for years.  He helped her answer her correspondence.  He did influence her to be very concerned about Muslims in India.  He also liked the trappings that came along with high status in the Royal Household.  He insisted on not being treated as just one of the nameless servants.  He would storm out of public events if he felt he was being slighted.  He would get newspapers to write articles about him.  He did suggest to the Queen that she give him and his family more and more honors.

This book did a wonderful job of getting into the mind of Queen Victoria through her writings.  You understand where she was coming from.  She loved Karim and his family.  She was hurt by her family's and staff's hatred of him.

I don't think the book did as good of a job figuring out what was going on in Karim's mind.  There are letters from him but he still felt like an enigma at the end of the book.  He was in a hard position.  There were several Indian servants but he was the only one in the closest inner circle to the Queen.  The Royal Family and the household were both incredibly racist and classist.  They hated him not only for being Indian but for not being an upper-class Indian.  How dare he assume he was their equal?

Put in that situation I can't fault him for looking out for himself and his family.  The Queen was elderly and he knew that he would be dealt with harshly after her death.  He had to provide for his family while he could.  Did he push too hard?  Maybe.  It doesn't excuse how he was treated though.

This is an infuriating read.  The racism is so overt.  Many letters from high British officials are included that just drip with disdain.

My only complaint about this book is that it is perhaps too detailed.  There are so many letters cited that they started to all run together.  But, I'd rather get too much information than not enough.

The narrator did a great job with all the voices required in this book - male, female, English, Indian, and Scottish.

There is a movie version of this book out now.  I'm interested to see what angle they take on this story.  Is it going to be a feel-good "Queen Victoria had a friend!" or is going to dive into the hatred from the people around her?  I'll do a compare and contrast post after I get to see the movie.

 This review was originally posted on Based On A True Story
Profile Image for Veena.
180 reviews60 followers
December 14, 2017
The book begins with the author’s note on the queen. She is shown around the Windsor Castle where she comes across the portrait of Abdul painted by Rudolph Swoboda. Shrabani Basu takes us to Agra and its political background when Abdul comes into the picture. The subsequent journey to Britain is described with intriguing details.

Abdul arrives in the country, which is completely different from his, and he is charmed by it. So is the Queen by him. He becomes her Munshi and she his perpetual defender. They are strong as rocks. Queen learns to read and write Urdu and Abdul climbs up the social ladder. Being closest to a powerful monarch comes with its benefits. Now, it may seem like a beneficial arrangement for both but the author here explores further.

As their friendship grows there overcomes a wave of jealousy in the household. Those serving the queen for years take a note of the magnificent promotions of the Munshi from one rank to the other gradually upping his seat in the society whereas they just stayed where they started. Ponsonboy is even refused an increment and Reid would always be the errand runner. The household even threatens to resign but that never comes about after a good dress down from the queen herself.

The queen’s blind faith in her loved subject continues as she rejects his relationship with the agitator Rafiuddin. The accusation of thievery and sycophancy is also met with a sneer. Such was the trust. But did the Munshi use it to uplift the status of the Muslims in her eyes? The queen was promptly informed of all the prejudices against the Muslim population portraying them as the ones on the losing grounds. Queen started writing frantic letters to Indian representatives asking for reservations for Muslims. She also suggested shifting the dates of the Hindu festivals so that Muharram could be celebrated without any interference.

The Munshi begins from his journey from a lowly servant to the queen but comes back to India possessing acres of prime land in Agra and otherwise unachievable social status.

Basu scrutinizes all the angles of the friendship and concludes with an emotional ‘A forgotten grave, a laminated telegram and the memories of an old man were all that was left of him in his native city. Agra has moved on.’ She has tried to give an unbiased, sort of, precise account of their friendship from different perspectives, which is definitely worth reading about.
20 reviews3 followers
November 11, 2017
Written by Shrabani Basu, Victoria, and Abdul is the story of the eccentric friendship between the Queen and  Hafiz Abdul Karim who was later to be known as the Munshi, the teacher of Hindustani language (Urdu) of the Queen who in return taught her the English language.
Abdul was a clerk in the Central Jail of Agra and was chosen to go as one of the Indian servants requested by queen after he helped the jail’s superintendent to send gold bangles as a gift to the Queen. Abdul who came as a servant to Queen Victoria was soon to become important in her life to such an extent that the last decade of her life would be incomplete without the mention of Karim in it.
He gave  her something to look up to life in form of her Urdu language lessons after the death of her husband and her close friend, James Brown. He was her link to India. The Queen was always mesmerized by the Indian culture and now she had someone who can tell her everything about the country in detail.

It’s a good account of the functioning of royal household under the Victorian rule and to know how the Empress used to spend her days and nights apart from answering the work letters. The book is a good example to show how the power of influence can be used to get anything done. Though, some of the titles and gifts that have been given by the queen were justified but many other titles rendered to the Munshi and his father were an example of the favour done on the personal liking and as a Queen, one is expected to be free from any biasedness.
The hostility that Karim faced in the later years of his service could be linked to racial discrimination and envy associated with the rapid increase in the status of Munshi with many royal guests visiting him on the insistence of the Queen.

It is a very well researched book and a story that deserves to be known because despite the numerous efforts made by the British Monarchy after Queen’s death to remove any evidence of her association with Karim, here we are, with a profoundly written book on their peculiar friendship along with a movie that released worldwide.

Looks like no one could stop Abdul Karim from being known as Queen’s Munshi even if its late by a century.
Profile Image for chucklesthescot.
2,905 reviews121 followers
May 25, 2019
Abdul was handpicked to come to the UK when Victoria wanted to form a closer relationship with India, the fascinating country that she was the new Empress of. He began as a common servant which is not what he was expecting as his skills were in administration but Victoria took a liking to him and gave him a more fitting role where he could assist her with her papers and become her teacher in her desire to learn Urdu. He soon became her most trusted companion, something that other Indian servants, the stuffy Royal Household and her family did not approve of. I understand their concerns as he did ask for honours and perks for himself and his father and friends, which is really not acceptable behaviour. It brought her into a conflict every time with her UK or Indian based staff, and he even tried to get her to take the side of the Muslims over the Hindus in an India that was getting close to splitting. It is easy to see their frustrations with the situation.

On the other side it does seem that Abdul genuinely cared for Victoria and knowing the hostility against him, was perhaps being prudent in ensuring that he had a future after she was gone ie looking for land to own in India. Her family were certainly not going to provide for him after her death and Victoria was also concerned for her future. He certainly filled a void in her life after the death of John Brown and tried to look after her interests. I can imagine that he also had to endure not just hostility and jealousy but outright racism. This book gives an interesting insight into this friendship, the political upheaval in India and Victorian life. I was also fascinated by the personality of Victoria, how much she wanted to learn about India and her determination to learn to speak and write Urdu. I found it very interesting and will probably watch the film.
Profile Image for Karan.
115 reviews38 followers
October 1, 2017
I liked how this subverted my expectations. Never thought I'd get to meet a tolerant, outward looking historical British monarch. And then it was striking how this monarch continues to persist with championing the cause of her friend from the subcontinent (in later phases, almost on an offensive):it continued to alarm me. That, and the parallel expose of calcified prejudices and attitudes in the high offices and living rooms were quite telling.

Basu does a remarkable thing to let the cache of correspondence do the talking. Whatever's remained of it anyways. It is a shame that there is so little of Abdul's own words. One almost has to construct his character from the letters between people resolutely against him and the woman who was his friend. His true intentions can only be inferred by interpretations of his actions. Rest assured, besides being a constant friend and confidante, he was an adroit careerist who asserted himself without a care for the critics surrounding him and Victoria, and made the most of the opportunity landed in his lap. I have come to admire that. And yes, this is a welcome picture than the treacly, sympathetic South Asian portraits that greet one.

There are also some other snapshots like that of the Indian royal princedoms and the Queen's relation to them which helps paint a more nuanced picture of the relations between the Indian and the British state.

It is a patient and considered presentation of a hidden subplot that reveals much more about the colonial times.
Profile Image for Vishal Shah.
58 reviews14 followers
October 14, 2017
I’ve learnt and read a lot about the British Raj in India and the reign of the late Queen Victoria, but we never learnt in secondary school about when and how Queen Victoria started learning Hindi and Urdu from her Munshi who is a minister that looks after all affair during the Mughal Empire. Munshi Hanif Abdul Karim.

This book explores Queen Victoria’s relations with India and the Indian people. How Abdul Karim who worked as a clerk doing admin duties at the Agra jail alongside his father to coming to London as a waiter during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee where Maharaja’s and Maharani’s from all corners of India wearing their beautiful, colourful and yet traditional clothes at the request of Queen Victoria with beautiful and expensive gifts for the Empress of India as Queen Victoria was called.

I liked how the book tells about a lonely Queen Victoria after the death of her husband Prince Albert and John Brown. The queen found a friend in Abdul and formed an unbreakable relationship with Abdul as she could share anything from good to anything.

Shrabani Basu has done a good amount of research on Abdul Karim locating the remains of his house in Agra to his grave including the research on the late Queen Victoria by going through the Queens letters, her diaries and the books where she wrote in Urdu, an easy book to read and I hope the movie is a good adaptation of this book.
Profile Image for Anukriti Malik .
178 reviews123 followers
November 15, 2017
Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh , two Indians were summoned by the Queen to help her address some Indian Princes during her Golden Jubilee. As soon as the Queen saw Karim , he catches her eyes and began the story of the most controversial friendship in history.

Gradually , Karim became a vital part of the Queen’s life and decisions ,who considered him as a close confidant amongst everyone from her English family. He was called Munshi – teacher since Karim taught her a lot about the Indian history and culture and also how to write in Urdu. The Queen was very fond of the munshi that she sent a call to invite his wife and his family to live in the palatial complex.

The close connection of the Munshi with the Queen wasn’t welcomed well by the royal family and just after the Queen breathed her last , Karim and his family were thrown out of England , the letter exchanged between the Queen and Karim were burnt publically and all evidences of the Queen’s friendship with an Indian Munshi were destroyed.

Shrabani Basu has done an excellent work both as a historian and as an author. I loved this book. The writing is lucid and connectable ,loved how the events unfolds and the description of both the royal household and the family of Karim. The author has researched a lot while penning this wonderful piece of literature. The insights in form of pictures from the past are a real delight.
355 reviews9 followers
September 23, 2018
Alla fine credo che questo libro rientri nella categoria "prefetisco il film" (cosa non facile) anche se non l'ho ancora visto (cosa ancora più rara).
La narrazione é impostata a mo' di riassunto dei fatti così come sono avvenuti secondo i diari, le lettere e i telegrammi che sono stati conservati fino ad oggi, con qualche citazione riportata qua e là. Grosso modo la narrazione mi da un senso di distacco, da documentario.
Dall'idea che mi ero fatta vedendo il trailer del film, Abdul sembrava molto umile, ma leggendo il libro pare più che altro un arrampicatore sociale, ambizioso, vanitoso e pure permaloso, ma anche ingenuo, in un certo senso. La regina Vittoria sembrava molto sola e annoiata, cosa che tutto sommato può essere vera, ma qui risalta anche il suo egocentrismo con tutti quei suoi ritratti che regala a destra e a manca, come se non ci fosse niente di più desiderabile. É una cosa tipica dei monarchi dell'epoca? O magari era l'equivalente di un biglietto d'auguri? Mah.
In ogni caso non dubito dell'amicizia fra la regina e il Munshi fosse autentica. Può darsi che Abdul ne ricavasse anche dei vantaggi, ma non ho motivo di credere che lui non le fosse affezionato, anche se il mio cinismo tende a credere che lo fosse solo per i privilegi che gli concedeva. Secondo me il film potrebbe rendere meglio l'affetto reciproco fra i due.
In conclusione è un libro che sembra fedele ai fatti, ma comunque poco coinvolgente.
Profile Image for Johanna.
229 reviews6 followers
April 16, 2013
I enjoyed this read. I have been interested in the British royalty since my visit to England last year during the Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee.

It gave a glimpse into the royal household in general, and also of course Queen Victoria herself, and how she lived in respect to her family, public, and India.

Found it very fascinating that she had such great interest in India, that she took time to learn Urdu, and constantly indulge in Indian matters. But I have no doubt, that the interest was sparked by the personal chemistry that must have been between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim.

It is also a story of cultural differences, and personal relations between people in a society that still was very regulated when it comes to 'class'.

Recommended read for anyone interested in british history. And its relations to India, but also concerning friendships between a Queen and her 'subjects'.
Profile Image for David Dunlap.
814 reviews41 followers
October 27, 2017
The story of the relationship between the ageing Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim sent to England for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, who ended up staying in England until the Queen's death in 1901, becoming her confidant and friend. Fairly straightforward biographical presentation (that might have benefited from some tighter editing). -- Might have liked this book better had I read it -before- seeing the movie based upon it (the film is more fictionalized). -- It is sad to see the racism that pervaded the Royal Family and Household and the hatred unleashed against Karim once the Queen was no longer available to protect (or promote) him.
Profile Image for Steph.
1,365 reviews
December 17, 2017
3.5 What an enlightening read! I have not really read anything quite like this before. Sadly the blatant racism is not so shocking of the Victorian era, but the sexism the usually considered beloved Queen faced by those closest to her was surprising to me. (Probably shouldn't be, I just love the idea of an all-powerful and admired female ruler as there are so few throughout history. I know.... hah! I truly am a dreamer!) It was also interesting to read about the love and positivity the Queen had over her conquered subjects in India, which is so not the perceived norm usually of the British Empire (for good reasons.) Always a joy to read something so eye-opening!
Profile Image for Rachel.
431 reviews1 follower
May 16, 2010
Story of Abdul Karim, an Indian servant turned "Munshi", the Queen's most valued companion and teacher. The spent over a decade together, though not a popular person in the royal household...some found him arrogant and a little too close to the queen....

A friend brought me this book back from India, it was published there.

I just bought another book on the life of the Queen and it will be interesting to see if Abdul Karim is referenced.
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