Victoria and Abdul: Abdul Karim is a young man sent to England as a servant. Suddenly, he’s in wonderland, and the queen of England takes a shine to him.
  • Victoria and Abdul: Abdul Karim is a young man sent to England as a servant. Suddenly, he’s in wonderland, and the queen of England takes a shine to him.
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“I think it’s significant,” says Shrabani Basu, “that Queen Victoria, in those days, over 100 years ago, chose to learn Urdu,” the language of a people under her rule. “And that she placed a young Muslim man at the heart of the royal court. This had never happened before, and it has never happened since. And that is what is at the heart of their story is friendship, people who have nothing in common who nevertheless come together.”

Shrabani Basu is the author of Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, which served as the basis for Stephen Frears’s Victoria and Abdul, out this week. “Abdul Karim is this young man, 24, and he’s sent to England as a servant. He doesn’t have a choice. And suddenly, he’s in wonderland, surrounded by so many grand things, and the queen of England takes a shine to him. He’s quite a proud man, and he writes to the queen that he’s never done menial work and he wants to go back. And she says, ‘No, stay.’ She’s at a very lonely stage in her life. Her friend John Brown had died four years earlier, and suddenly, here’s this breath of fresh air.”

It may be fresh, but there’s also an exotic whiff about it. “She’s the empress of India, and she longs to know about it. With Abdul, India comes to her, and that’s very much part of the attraction. He gives her the real story of India. He also quotes Urdu poetry to her, quotes the Koran to her, and tells her about the Taj Mahal, which is a king’s monument of love for his dead wife. Queen Victoria is such a romantic; she loves all this. She starts taking an interest in Indian affairs, starts writing to the viceroy. And she lavishes him with gifts.”

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Victoria & Abdul **

Small surprise then, that the queen’s household hates the interloper from the Far East. “He was a commoner, not even an Indian prince. He’s Indian, a subject race. And he’s a Muslim. They tried every trick in the book: they accused him of being a spy, they accused him of theft. They told the queen they would declare her insane if she didn’t give him up. I thought that was amazing, because you can’t go to Queen Victoria and say that.”

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