Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidante – Shrabani Basu (2010)


I’d been wanting to jump back into some Victorian history lately, so dug out this book about the slightly strange friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian man who rose in the ranks to become one of the most powerful people at the end of the nineteenth century.

Called “Victoria and Abdul”, this is a solid non-fiction narrative that describes how a 24-year-old man from the Indian city of Agra ends up meeting and developing an almost inseparable friendship with Queen Victoria, the Empress of India.

Honestly, if you didn’t know this was fact, you’d wonder about the veracity of the story, but it’s a true one.

It’s also true that one can view the storyline through various perspectives, and I’m curious about how others have viewed this history, but for now, I am swayed that Basu, the book’s author, has done her homework and told a factual story.

If you’re not a fangirl or fanboy of Queen Victoria, there’ll be some gaps for you to fill in, but Basu does a good job of giving the reader the necessary background to comprehend what’s going on, and she writes in a straightforward manner which the reader will need as there is a huge cast of characters. Not a book to daydream through, but not difficult. (Plus there are lots of footnotes and citations to back all the information.)

(The only negative that I had for the actual writing was that it was a little simplistic in places, and Basu repeats some information several times (things an editor would have/should have caught, methinks.) But that’s really minor in the big scheme of things.)


This photo was seen as blasphemous since the Munshi is starting right into the camera lens instead of staring at the Queen….

So – to the story. Queen Victoria, now the Empress of India, was gearing up to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, and with her queendom spreading across the world, she wanted to include some of her far-distant subjects in the event.

Abdul Karim was a young medical assistant in Agra’s prison and living a non-eventful life when his name was given to the ruling British diplomats as a possibility for traveling to England for the year prior to the Jubilee celebrations.

Abdul was ecstatic (as one would be) and travelled to England to meet the Queen and to work in her household. After an initial misunderstanding about what the job would actually entail, Abdul ends up serving meals to the royal household.

As time goes on, Abdul impresses the Empress (sorry – couldn’t resist), and his duties start to evolve. Queen Victoria is older now, 50 years on the throne, and it was unlikely that she would travel to India to see her subjects there.

Instead, she bought a group of Indian subjects to England to learn about their country. Abdul starts to give Victoria one-on-one private lessons on the Urdu language, and through their developing friendship and amid much consternation from the Royal Household, Abdul becomes closer and closer to Her Majesty.

Victoria names Abdul the Munshi, which means “clerk” or “teacher”, and over the next fifteen years, the Queen develops a very close maternal relationship with the Munshi (Abdul). He starts to advise her over Indian affairs, over-riding the Queen’s other more seasoned advisors, and Victoria starts to rely on him more and more, over more than just the India question.

He, for his part, pulls strings with Her Majesty to help his family, including giving a healthy pension to his father, and for Victoria’s household staffers, the whole thing is rather alarming.

This relationship causes endless friction throughout the staff at the Royal Household, especially as the Queen hands more power to the Munshi. He travels everywhere with her and spends all day with Her Majesty. She adores him, and does not tolerate any ill will towards him, despite what her advisors tell him.

And so the book goes on: the Munshi ends up with more and more power; one of his friends is thought to be an agitator and staffers delve into his background on suspicion of that. They delve into the background of his father, they try to rein the Queen in, they join forces with other government representatives…

However, Victoria was stubbornly protective of him until she died, and so for fifteen years, the Munshi and his royal friend ruled the roost.

It’s a really interesting story that is hard to believe. However, when you look at Queen Victoria’s personal history, you can see a pattern of behavior. (See this interesting detail about Victoria’s other male friend, Mr. John Brown. Did they get married?!)

Albert died quite young and Queen Victoria never really got over his death, wearing black mourning clothing every day until she died.

So, Victoria was lonely and heart-broken. The stage was set for someone to step up to the plate to fill that hole that Albert had left behind.

If you think about it, Victoria really seemed to need someone close to her for most of her life. For example, once her children had left the palace for their own lives, she partially adopted an African princess, she had a close friendship with another man from India, she had a close friendship (?) with John Brown, and when he died, there was the space for her to make a close friendship with the Munshi.

So it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that she would be open to having another friend, unsuitable though the Royal Household may have thought.

In the end, when Victoria dies in January 1901, the Munshi’s life comes to a stop with regard to royalty. King Edward VIII is swift to send the Munshi back to India to live on his land that Victoria had given to him. Edward, not a fan on the Munshi, tracks down and then destroys most of the correspondence between Abdul and the Queen (even sending staffers to the Munshi’s house in India to knock on the door of his family home to see if they had any more letters that had been missed before). No one in the Royal Household wanted the Munshi to use that personal correspondence for money…

It’s all rather sad really. Despite the official background checks, Abdul didn’t have any nefarious goals (apart from some self-serving ones), and so when I turned that last page, I was left wondering what to think about all this.

Were the Royal Household unpleasant (and bullying) to the Munshi out of spite and jealousy? Why did Victoria dig her heels in to protect Abdul so much? As the years have passed, the general consensus seems to be that the Munshi was harmless and a good friend to the lonely Queen.

Being an Indian, he must have stood out in the royal residences, and surrounded by the Queen’s personal and long-employed staffers, it must have been lonely for him at times as well. He knew that he was not well liked.

The staffers’ long campaign to get rid of him failed, perhaps through a combination of racial prejudice and snobbery, and Victoria stuck to her guns for the last fifteen years of her life. The Munshi was actually, through design or otherwise, the last person to see Victoria before the lid of her coffin was put on…

Anyway, it’s an amazing story and I highly recommend this read.  Incidentally, there is also a movie of this book with Dame Judi Dench, which I am interested in tracking down sometime. I read that it takes some fictional liberties though…

I’ll have to see.

By the way, the Smithsonian magazine has a good article on this topic.

And here’s a link from the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, about a new view of the Munshi and Victoria (from the Munshi’s diaries).

And for more about Victoria’s life:

Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers – Shyam Selvadurai (ed.) (2005)

book416After having fully immersed myself in authors and writing by African-American writers during February, I thought it would be fun to continue reading other POC authors and writings from around the world, so browsing through the TBR shelves (go me!), I came across this title and thought it would fit the bill perfectly.

I’m not sure where I ended up hearing about this title, but the stickers on the book lend credence to the fact that it’s probably used as a textbook in a world literature class somewhere or other, and regardless, this was great fun to read.

As the whole book title reads, Story-Wallah: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction, this was an anthology of writings and authors from Southern Asia and featured a wide range of writers from the well-known (such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith) to the slightly less well-known (at least to me). They were all originally written in English (I think) and all fiction, and the range of the short stories was quite astounding. I loved it. It was like eating candy in a pick-n-mix as you (I) never really knew what was coming once I’d finished a story. There wasn’t a bad one in the whole anthology, and I adored almost every page that I read.

As Shyam Selvadurai writes in his introduction, “The stories jostle up against each other . . . The effect is a marvelous cacophony that reminds me of . . . one of those South Asian bazaars, a bargaining, carnival-like milieu. The goods on sale in this instance being stories hawked by story-traders: story-wallahs.”

Edited by Selvadurai, it’s a perfect read for a monkey mind (comme moi right now), and I thoroughly enjoyed almost every story, even taking notes of a few favorite authors to dig into at a later date as their included short stories were so strong.

Authors ranged from locales across the Southern Asia diaspora, from Sri Lanka, India, Great Britain, USA, Trinidad, Fiji and others, and explored (as GoodReads says) universal themes of identify, culture and home. I fairly gobbled this read down, and am going to keep it on the shelves for another read at another time. Yes, it was that good.

Naturally, some authors were more favorite than others (as is typical in a wide-sweeping anthology), and I made notes to make sure that I track down more work by Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Farida Karodia, Hanif Kureishi, and Shani Mootoo, but there are loads more from which to choose.

It’s a big book (>400 pages), but it’s extremely readable and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Highly recommended in almost every metric. 🙂


(Above) – This is what is generally accepted as Southern Asia, but the book travels more widely than this…

Summer Reading Suggestions Part Two: Armchair Traveling…


Summer months can mean traveling, and even if you’re stuck at home in the heat (or cold!), you can still cover ground that’s very different to yours from the ease of your armchair…

Any editions of America’s Best Travel Writing will work and help your internal travels on the way, really, but it helps to align the editor person of that year with your own particular tastes. (Or so I learned the other day.) I really recommend Mary Roach’s book from when she edited…. But then I’m a Mary Roach fangirl to nth degree. There are a lot of others from which to choose…

If you have a lot of luggage to take with you, have a look at Victorian traveler Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries (1854), and be thankful that you don’t have to carry all his stuff. 🙂

As I live in Texas and summers can get pretty hot (114 degrees the other day), I really enjoy reading books about adventures in cooler places as they can remove me (at least in my mind) from the high temperatures that we have here.

Going northwards to the Canadian wilds is cooler, and Mary Bosanquet’s true recollection, Saddlebags for Suitcases (1942), is a good account of how she traveled across Canada on horseback before she had to settle down and get married. (Lucky to have such rich and generous parents, but good read all the same.)

If you’d rather stay on the main land of the U.S., have a looksee at Charles Dickens’ excellent travelogue of his time in the States, American Notes for General Circulation (1842). (Old but still relevant and en-pointe a lot of the time. Really funny in some ways, and I think if you’re a fan of Bill Bryson, you’d like this one. Seriously. A lot of overlaps.)

For a very different perspective of traveling and adventuring, the poignant and exciting two-volume diaries of Cherry Aspley-Garrard’s harrowing trip with Captain Scott to the Antarctic is riveting. (And cold.)

If you’d prefer Siberian levels of cold, try Esther Hautzig’s compulsively readable The Endless Steppe about her childhood where her family gets sent to Siberia as part of the WWII action in Poland. (It’s very good. And it’s very cold. And it’s amazing what the human spirit can do to survive.)

For more cold (but not *quite* so cold) reading, how about Crowdie and Cream by Finley J. McDonald and The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee? Both accounts of living in the Hebrides up in north Scotland. Brrr.

More coolish travel accounts include Jonathon Raban’s really good 1987 book, Coasting, about his time traveling in a small boat around the edges of United Kingdom. (English summer is not known to be very sunny and warm at times…)

Raban’s a really good writer, and as a related aside: he has another book from when he was traveling around North Dakota and its environs, called Badlands (pre-blog). (Just really good solid travel non-fiction, and fun if you’re stuck in a chair in a hot place comme moi.)

If you’d like to travel to the Pacific islands of the state of Hawaii, the non-fiction writing of Tony Horowitz is fascinating: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook has Gone Before (2003) follows the journey of Captain Cook except through modern eyes and with modern transportation. Really interesting and written with a good sense of humor.

The traveling theme continues with the excellent Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater’s 1990 account of how he “followed” the arrival of the yearly monsoon in India. A fun, lively and respectful account of some of the people he met, and the adventures that came up.

For a different take on India, there’s a really good story of a young man from India who came back to his roots from his Australian adopted family via Google Earth and some plain hard work: Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home is a good read. (Writing’s not great, but story is fantastic. In retrospect, maybe just watch the movie, Lion. 🙂 )

While you’re out that way, drop into the Antipodes (to me) and have a look at Once We Were Warriors by Alan Duff (1990), an excellent and very powerful novel about Maori life in New Zealand…. (It’s not a happy read, but it’s doggone excellent.)

Traveling further afield, Monique and the Mango Rains (Kris Holloway) (2007), a memoir which tells of the friendship between Peace Corps. Volunteer Holloway and a young village midwife in Mali (West Africa). A very positive and honest take on this particular country…

For another positive take on both the progress in HIV/AIDS treatments and a look at Botswana, try Saturday is for Funerals (2010) by Unity Dow and Max Essex. If you’d prefer a graphic novel of young life in the Ivory Coast, pick up the volumes starting with Aya by Margaureite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2007) which show a more typical side of life in Africa and teenagers dealing with typical teenaged issues.

Or you could veer madly to the east on the map and steer your way to North Korea with Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick) and learn of (the rather strange) life in that country. While you’re out this way, check out anything by Peter Hessler for a look at life in China when he was living there…

Back stateside and if you’d rather travel back in time,  there’s a really interesting book that digs into the history of Frontier Counties in the U.S. (i.e. those counties which have rather low populations so they’re very rural) so you might like Duncan Dayton’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993). (I happened to love it and would readily read anything else by this author. Published by an academic press, so dense information but very readable.)

And if you’re heading to the beach, then Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea (1955) is a thoughtful short (and pretty easy) read. This is not actually a shell identification guidebook :-), but it does revolve around different shells although it’s a tad more philosophical. Provocative and supportive for women of all ages, but particularly for, shall we say, women of a distinctive age. 🙂

More to come, but this next time with a focus on readings and writings by POC authors…

Hooray for summer!

Let’s do some catch-up…

catch_upSo I’ve been reading, but there seem to have been one or two titles which are good but not quite enough to warrant an individual blog post. Honestly, I don’t think it’s the books’ fault so much as it is the reader’s in each case, so don’t think these books are less worthy or anything. It’s mostly a time thing at the moment.

A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley (2015).

This is an autobiography written by a young man who grew up very poor in an Indian city and who, one day when he was only five years old, was playing on the train tracks with his older brother when he accidentally got locked into a railway carriage and was whisked away across the country to Mumbai, where he was put into an orphanage and then adopted by an overseas couple. This tale is how, by overcoming all the odds, he found his way home again. (This is the book that the movie Lion is based upon, btw.) It’s a fantastic story – that’s true – but I think the read would have been better if he’d used a professional ghostwriter (or editor) to up his writing game a bit. It was well written (in that there were few grammar errors etc.), but the level of writing was rather fundamental and rather clunky at times. Still a good story though. It might be better to watch the film than read the book.

Trifles – Susan Gaspell (1916)

I had recently been playing around with my Century of Reading (COB) project, and wanted to find a title that would help fill in some of the remaining blanks (not many really). So I searched for “books published in 1916”, and wanting a more esoteric title and something that wasn’t 500 pages long, picked out a play which seemed to fit the bill.

Just to be clear, despite the play being called Trifles, the play is not about that wonderful English confection of jelly/jello, whipped cream and other fine tasty tidbits. It’s used, in this case, in the sense of “seemingly unimportant things usually linked with women and said by men”… :-}

This play (which I’d not heard of before but I’m not a dramatic expert by any means) was interesting and is actually one of those stories that stick in your head for ages after you’ve finished it as you mull over the various interpretations of how it could be read (or played).

Set out in the country of somewhere like the Midwest, the narrative revolves around the death of Mr. Wright, a farmer who lived in a remote house along with his wife (obvs. called Mrs. Wright). The local sheriff and a deputy are searching the home for any clues after learning that Mr. Wright had died by strangulation. Was it a murder, and if so, who did it?

At the same time as the police officials are searching for clues, there are two women from the nearby community also accompanying the two men in a tag-along sort of way. The small community is far from other towns so any news is big news to the local folk. (It’s really interesting, btw, to see how these guys treat the crime scene vs. now how the crime scene is treated i.e. stomping around everywhere… 🙂 )

They are all unsure how to explain the crime until the women find a dead canary….

It’s a pretty good play to read, but I was more happy, TBH, that it filled out a year in the COB project. 🙂



The Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories – Lavanya Sankaran (2005)


Another book from the TBR pile, this one is a collection of short stories revolving around characters based in (or from) Bangalore*, the “Silicon Valley” in the south of India and a mix of traditional and new ways of thinking – a “chaotic crossroads” of different classes, history and cultures (to paraphrase one reviewer on Goodreads).

Not being a huge fan of short stories (but willing to try), I had just suffered through the dreadfulness of 1940’s American wealth and Mrs. Parkington and was searching for something completely different from that. So – Indian short stories it was and what an unexpected fun read it was.

Although it may be her first published book, Sankaran is an excellent writer with a sly sense of humor that emerges in unexpected places throughout her narratives. She had previously published stories in such illustrious places as The Atlantic Monthly, and it’s obvious why they did – they’re good.

Generally speaking, I tend to get frustrated reading short stories as they seem to end too early and leave me as the reader hanging (and not in PoMo way). They just seem too short sometimes, as though they are more of a fragment of a longer unfinished work, and to be honest, there were a couple of stories like that in this volume. But as I read deeper and deeper into the collection and saw that there were subtle connections between the stories (an overlapping character, a mention of a previous place, etc.), I started to really enjoy this. (Perhaps the connectivity between the stories gave me the feeling that this was one long narrative instead of individual short stories – maybe that’s why it worked for me.)

Anyway, I really enjoyed this and if you enjoy multi-cultural reads that are extremely well written and enjoyable at the same time, you’ll enjoy this one. I’m not sure where I found this title, but thanks to whoever put it on my radar screen. Loved it.

bangalore map

• Also known as Bengaluru.

A Passage to India – E. M. Forster (1924)

A Passage to India coverLoved, loved, LOVED this book. I adore Forster’s work anyway, but when you combine that with a story of Anglo-Indian relationships during the time of the Raj? Swoon. Having already read A Room with a View and Howards End, I was prepared for great writing, so then to read a book that is favorable to the Indian perspective at a time when that was not common was even better.

A Passage to India relates the story of two English women who visit India during the waning days of the Raj and the early emergence of Indian independence. Forster had actually spent some time in India and was sympathetic to the Indian cause, and this is clearly seen in this novel.

Miss Adele Quested and her companion (and potential mother-in-law) Mrs. Moore have arrived to spend some time with her son (and perhaps future husband) who is an English colonial representative in Chandrapore, a medium-sized Indian town. Miss Quested is far more interested in wanting to see the “real” India than the Anglo-Indian perspective and this is the trigger that sets everything in motion. Miss Quested (and others) are taken on a day-trip to some nearby caves where an alleged assault happens to her, possibly by a young and very impressionable Indian doctor who has led the trip. This incident leads to a court trial and creates even more of a rift between the local Indian population and the English crowd who live there (and have the power). Can such differing groups ever be friends?

That’s the question throughout the book, and even at the end, it’s not really ever answered so the reader has to make his/her own decisions. Forster, as mentioned, is sympathetic to the Indian independence movement, and clearly demonstrates the incompetence of the English administration in this novel. Kudos to Forster for not subscribing to obvious stereotypes for the most part, and if you are a fan of luscious descriptions, believable plot lines and realistic characters, you can’t go wrong with this one.

I wonder if the movie is as good as the book?

The City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi – William Dalrymple (2003)

This was one of the biggest surprises to me as I had entered the book thinking it was going to be Raj-infused look at Delhi over the past hundred years or so. Surprise (in a good way): it’s actually goes back hundreds of year to the Mughal empire and even the Mongols (who invaded the Mughals which, due to the word play, makes me smile).

So, I actually ended up learning tons more than I had anticipated when I picked up this very readable historical travelogue. Dalrymple wrote it when he (and his wife) had been living in Delhi for about seven years, so it’s not tinged with the novelty of the place (as some Western-authored memoirs can be). This has a patina of experience to it, of acceptance of “it is what it is”. Dalrymple is also a well-read historian of the lengthy history of this remarkable city, and having lived there, has managed to delve into the lesser known parts of its story.

But this historical travel book is not hard to read – au contraire, it’s very readable as Dalrymple employs a lovely dry wit as he observes life in the city. He might hear of some small snippet of Delhi history, and get curious and then spend hours in the Delhi library further researching it, and then go off and find a Delhi historian who would actually take him to the very site where this event occurred. Dalrymple (and his wife) also committed to learning Hindu which helped break down any barriers between himself and the residents.

Covering almost everything from a small band of eunuchs to the pigeon racing fans to the old and rather sad Raj people who stayed behind when India was Partitioned back in the 1940’s and since then, have rather slipped between the cracks with neither England nor India wanting or accepting them, it’s a fascinating cross-section of an ancient city.

It’s a bit heavy in some of the history, and as the book went back further and further in time, back to the Indian legends at the beginning, I kinda glazed over that, but the more recent history was fascinating. I learned so much about before the Raj and about the history of Delhi. It’s called the City of Seven Cities as it has been built, knocked down and remade seven times as various men have come into power through lots of political and familial machinations which would make the Borgia family weep – Incest! Traitorship! Sibling rivalry! Beheading! Pulled apart by elephants! Pushed into wells alive and left to die!…

Dalrymple also brings some of the local characters into the story as well, so it’s not all dry history. He frequently uses a grumpy but very funny taxi driver to transport him to various places, and he makes a good friendship with a local historian, and his landlady is hilarious, although rather unintentionally.

The book also sorted out for me the various religions that are more common in India, and the history between them, so now I have a bit more of an idea about who believes what and when in which religion. I also have a much clearer understanding of the Pakistan/India rift, and can’t imagine why England thought it was a good idea at the time (or ever, really). Masses of people forcibly relocated to places they didn’t want to go, mostly based on religion. Crazy.

Oh, and the Djinns are spirit beings who inhabit the city and have been there since time immemorial.

So – overall, a very very good book that taught me a lot about a country that I probably will not visit, but still find fascinating. It was also an extra bonus that the author took me much farther back, historically speaking, that I had anticipated. I will definitely be reading another one of his books at some time.

William Dalrymple’s website:


Library Loot – Week of August 26th 2011

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If  you’d like to participate, just write up your post – feel free to steal the  button – and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course  check out what other participants are getting from their libraries. (N.B. Still working out to get the Mr. Linky widget on here so it will be here next time.)

For this week, I was quite restrained at the library and on Amazon, although it’s tough to tell from the large pile of books in the photo.

Here is what I have:

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook – Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner. A non-fiction about life in the time of the Raj for English wives whose husbands were stationed in India. As I adore anything  about the Raj and Anglo-Indian times, this is right up my alley. A sort of Mrs Beeton for the Memsahib, I would think.

Consuming Passions – Judith Flanders. Another non-fiction about Victorian life and how people spent their leisure time (if they had it). I have her other book about the Victorian house, so looking forward to this one.

Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire – Simon Winchester. Yet another non-fiction (methinks I am on an non-fiction craze right now). The author sets out to find out what was left of the British Empire. It used to be pink all over the globe and now? Not so much. Should be interesting.

Mormon Country – Wallace Stegner. Another non-fiction, this time a collection of essays by Stegner who lived in Utah for 15 years. Should be interesting, and as I am going to visit Utah at the end of the month, thought it would be good to read up about things.

Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey. Not so sure about this one as it says “mystical” in the description on amazon, but we’ll see. Another series of essays, this time from an author who spent some time as a park ranger in Southeastern Utah. Again, another book for preparing me to visit that state. Will probably read the Stegner book first though.

And the dark green one that seems to have no title is a title that I found on a website called “Neglected Classics” (or similar) and is called Zulieka Dobson by Max Beerbohm. Apparently a novel about life in an English college for the Don and his family. Written in 1911. I must have been convinced by the website’s description that it was good, so we will see.

Happy reading!