|Biographical detail : ||Queen Victoria’s closest confidante.
Among the half-a-dozen handsome khidmatgars (servants) that Queen Victoria of England imported from the city of Agra in her Indian Raj, Hafiz Abdul Karim was the most erudite.
The khidmatgars learnt the art of waiting at the royal table at meal times from the head butler. They were a colourful lot in brocade turbans, beards, sherwanis and churidars. Abdul Karim was the smartest of the lot. Within one year, he learnt to speak English fluently and was then able to converse with the Queen.
From a waiter the Queen elevated Hafiz Abdul Karim to the rank of a munshi who would teach her Hindustani. She provided him and his family with a large cottage in the palace grounds. Everyday Karim gave her lessons in spoken Hindustani and Urdu. She was soon able to talk to her Indian visitors in their language.
The sudden rise of Munshi Abdul Karim was strongly resented inside and outside the palace. The Queen went out of her way and proposed his name for knighthood. There were loud protests and she had to withdraw her proposal. Instead, she conferred the Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) on him, along with a new title Royal Victorian Order (RVO). The Queen further honoured Karim’s father who was a hakeem in Agra’s prison hospital with the title, Khan Bahadur.
When Queen Victoria died, Abdul Karim was allowed only to see her dead body but not to attend the funeral service in the cathedral – he had to watch it from a loft. One afternoon, the entire royal household barged into Karim’s cottage and ordered him to hand over every letter and scrap of paper on which the late Queen had written anything. They tore it all and threw them in the fire. They searched every corner of the cottage to make sure no evidence of the relationship was left.
A beaten and broken-hearted Abdul Karim returned to Agra. He died in his city.
Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queens’s Closest Confidante, an absorbing book, by Shrabani Basu is available for further reading.