The relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian attendant Abdul Karim was deemed so controversial by her family that his existence was scrubbed from royal history upon her death. Shrabani Basu, whose book is now a feature film, explores how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of Empire at a time when independence movements in the sub-continent were growing in force.
Queen Victoria ruled from 20 June 1837 to 22 January 1901, making her the second longest reigning monarch in Britain. To many she is thought of as a dour, rigid monarch – perhaps because she is oftentimes seen dressed in black and with a downturned expression in her portraits. However, the real Queen was engaged with her work and remained interested in her subjects across the globe for over 63 years. Here are five things you may be surprised to find out about the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India:
1. She liked curries
Queen Victoria tasted her first authentic Indian curry in 1887 when her servant Abdul Karim cooked it for her. She pronounced the curry to be ‘excellent’ and then ordered that curries would be cooked in the Royal kitchens every day. For thirteen years till her death, curries were always cooked and served at luncheon. Victoria’s favourite curries were chicken curry and daal.
She longed to eat a mango from India, but the sea journey was so long, they were always rotten by the time they reached her.
2. She learnt to read and write in Urdu
Victoria wanted to learn Urdu or Hindustani as it was known, and requested Abdul Karim to teach her. He was soon promoted to be her teacher or Munshi. She took her lessons every day, never missing one, even if she was travelling. Towards the end of her life, she could write half a page of fluent Urdu.
She completed 13 volumes of her Hindustani Journals, one for each year that she spent in the company of Abdul Karim. Her last entry, two months before her death, was in November 1900. Victoria died in January 1901.
Nutmeg Tree, Sumatra, 1824
3. She was Empress of India, but never visited
Victoria was given the title of Empress of India in 1876 by her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. She was delighted with the title and longed to visit India, but the sea journey was too long and she never did. She once wrote that she would give anything to see the Taj Mahal.
She sent artists to India to paint the ordinary people and artisans, so she could understand the real India.