Victorian Secrets: Interview with Shrabani Basu, Author of Victoria & Abdul
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
Stephen Frear’s lavish historical drama Victoria & Abdul is set to hit cinemas in mid-September after its showings at both the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. With all of the hype and excitement around the release, it’s a great opportunity to dive into the real story behind the cinematic narrative. The film was based on Shrabani Basu’s historical non-fiction book, also titled Victoria & Abdul. Basu is an acclaimed historian who has written a number of books, including For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front,1914-18 and Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, both of which look at forgotten contributions of Indian civilians to the British war effort in the First and Second World War, respectively. In her book Victoria & Abdul, Basu delved into the hidden friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian attendant Abdul Karim. The two met and became close towards the end of Victoria’s reign and the friendship had a profound impact on the Queen, but this fascinating story was almost lost. The relationship had caused great tension in the royal household, and, after the monarch’s death, the correspondence between the two was ordered to be destroyed in the hopes that the memory of friendship would be forgotten. With the release of the film, we took the opportunity to speak to Basu about her research and writing, her views on the representation of India in film, and some of the books she’d recommend to fans of her work.
How did you come to write Victoria & Abdul?
I first heard of Abdul Karim when I was researching a book on curry. I knew that Queen Victoria liked curries and that she had some Indian servants. It was only during a trip to
Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria’s holiday home, that I saw his portrait in the Indian Corridor. He was painted in red, gold and cream and it caught my attention. I felt he did not look like a servant. He had been painted like a nobleman. I saw other portraits and photographs in Osborne and I knew that he was someone quite special. I then went to Windsor Castle and asked to see Queen Victoria’s Journals and her Hindustani Journals. That was the start of the journey. It took four years to piece together the story.
How did it feel to it feel to be uncovering a forgotten part of history?
It was amazing, particularly because the establishment had tried their best to erase it. All the letters written to him by Queen Victoria were burnt after her death by her son and heir Bertie (Edward VII). Finding Abdul’s diary in Karachi was amazing. Finally, I could hear his voice.
Why is this an important story for modern readers and audiences to know?
It is important to know that at a time when the British Empire was at its height, there was a young Muslim man at the heart of the Royal court who became Queen Victoria’s closest confidant. He taught her to read and write in Urdu, something people do not know.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
That Queen Victoria learnt Urdu for thirteen years and that by the end of her life she could write half a page of Urdu in her diary. Given her age, it was amazing.
What about Victoria & Abdul were you most excited to see adapted for the screen, and what were you most nervous about?
There are so many dramatic moments in the book. There is the moment when the Household threaten to collectively resign if she takes Abdul to France. I really wanted to see that scene play out on screen. The small details were important to me, like the fact that Queen Victoria wanted to eat mangoes and could never get a mango, as they would always spoil over the sea journey. It was an amusing story. I was delighted to see it included in the script. I was worried that Abdul should not look like a caricature, or speak with a Peter Sellers-style Indian accent. There is none of this in the movie. The screenplay is wonderful and his character comes out really well.
With Victoria & Abdul being released at a time that has seen a lot of success with TV shows such as The Crown and Victoria, what do you think draws modern audiences to want to explore the private lives of these monarchs?
I think royalty and British queens will continue to fascinate. It is a glimpse of a woman in a man’s world, whether it is Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria or Elizabeth II. The politics of the period is always so interesting.
There was some discussion recently around the lack of representation of Indian soldiers in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. You’ve written about the often overlooked contribution of India to both World Wars. How far do you think we’ve come in recognising a broader range of narratives in this context?
The discussion was good, because it raised important issues. I have long spoken about the need to highlight the contribution of Indians in WWI and WWII and written two books on the subject. I think there is a long way to go, but at least the process has started.
Following on from that, how do you feel about the representation of Indian culture and history in Western film and television? Do you think Victoria & Abdul has important work to do in this area?
I’m not a great fan of how Western television has shown India, particularly in fictionalised drama. It is either an overdose of Bollywood or curries or Raj-era nostalgia. I think the best television dramatisation of the Raj period was ITV’s Jewel in The Crown.
On the other hand, we have had some fantastic documentaries on India. One of my recent favourites was the one on the Indus Valley civilisation and Gandhara art shown on BBC 4. Victoria & Abdul is a true story, so it is different from fictional works. I think the fact that it is about a young Indian man, who is causing a storm at the heart of the Empire, is interesting. It turns the Raj narrative on its head and look at the period from the other side.
What five historical nonfiction books would you recommend everyone read?
The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru
The Discovery of India was written by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during his imprisonment in 1942–46 at Ahmednagar Fort in Maharashtra, India. With Discovery of India, Nehru pays honour to the rich cultural heritage of India, its history and its philosophy as seen through the eyes of a patriot fighting for the independence of his country. The book is widely considered one of the finest modern works on Indian history.
The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C Chaudhuri
Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is the collective memoir of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, a man remembered for his support of the British Empire at a time that India was struggling to hold on to its newfound freedom. An examination of the Indian renaissance, the politics that led to freedom, and the nature of Indian nationalism, the book is considered a vital contribution to Indian literature.
A Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela
The riveting memoirs of the outstanding moral and political leader of our time, A Long Walk to Freedom brilliantly re-creates the drama of the experiences that helped shape Nelson Mandela's destiny. Emotive, compelling and uplifting, A Long Walk to Freedom is the exhilarating story of an epic life; a story of hardship, resilience, and ultimate triumph told with the clarity and eloquence of a born leader.
The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple
On a dark evening in November 1862, a cheap coffin is buried in eerie silence.
There are no lamentations or panegyrics, for the British Commissioner in charge has insisted,
'No vesting will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Mughals rests.' This Mughal is Bahadur Shah Zafar II, one of the most tolerant and likeable of his remarkable dynasty who found himself leader of a violent and doomed uprising. The Siege of Delhi was the Raj's Stalingrad, the end of both Mughal power and a remarkable culture.
Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
What makes a Stalin? Was he a Tsarist agent or Lenin's bandit? Was he to blame for his wife's death? When did the killing start? Based on revelatory research, here is the thrilling story of how a charismatic cobbler's son became a student priest, romantic poet, prolific lover, gangster mastermind, and murderous revolutionary. Culminating in the 1917 revolution, Simon Sebag Montefiore's bestselling biography radically alters our understanding of the gifted politician and fanatical Marxist who shaped the Soviet empire in his own brutal image. This is the story of how Stalin became Stalin.
What’s a single book that you unashamedly love, that your readers might not expected you to enjoy?
I can always pick up an Agatha Christie and read it. Murder on the Orient Express and A Murder is Announced are favourites.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published in September, 2017.