The Karim Lodge and the Indian John Brown
Hafiz Abdul Karim at the Windsor castle
In Agra, there used to be a building called Karim Lodge near the Bijli ghar. It was built for its last occupant on land gifted by one of the most powerful persons living then, the Queen of England. The last occupant of it was, believe it or not, one who could have attained so much but asked for little, and he was Queen Victoria’s friend and confidante during her fading years. Their passionate story, the story of the sexagenarian rani and her Munshi, is unique and beset with intrigue and sorrow, a story the house of Windsor tried hard to first suppress and then erase. She the empress of India, protected him as long as she was alive, when powerful forces worked against his presence at the palace. As soon as she died, Abdul was unceremoniously sacked and sent home to India, and all written records destroyed. Was their relationship platonic or was it not? Let’s find out by going back a century and 30 years.
The story was well known to people working in the palace, mainly the queen’s physician James Reid and years after her death, the story slowly saw light, and a couple of books were written, the first by Sushila Anand and the second by Shrabani Basu. But who was Brown? The John Brown mentioned in the title was Victoria’s friend after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, many years before Abdul, he was her Scottish servant actually. Victoria was proclaimed queen in 1876 and Brown her friend and confidante, died in 1883. Four years after Brown’s death, the Queen who had a longstanding interest in her Indian territories and who always wanted to visit India, but could never do it due to the arduousness involved in the travel, decided to employ some Indian servants to get her wish granted in her Golden Jubilee year. Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh were selected by Governor (NWFP) John Tyler in India, coached on British manners and etiquette and shipped off to London, as her new servants. They arrived at the Windsor castle in June 1887 amidst the festivities and were meant to be her khitmagers or table servants, to start with.
Karim then aged 24, son of an Agra hakim (native doctor) was to make his presence in the royal household, and how. He became her friend, her Urdu instructor (hence the official Munshi title) and was finally gazetted as her Indian secretary and hafiz. He was certainly a good companion, he told her stories of the great Indian subcontinent, and they discussed political, philosophical as well as a range of other topics, all evident from Vitoria’s diaries and letters.
As they met first, the darker skinned Buksh and the lighter and taller Karim kissed her feet as was the customary greeting for the monarch (I guess they don’t do such silly things these days!). She took pride in her two new assistants and had special Indian style tweed uniforms made for them, making sure also that the kit was complete with gloves, shoes and warm underwear.
It is understood that Karim was unhappy doing menial tasks and after a while wanted to return home. The queen requested him to stay on so that she could learn some Hindustani, and promised to recommend him for a suitable post. However she did something better, she had him promoted to her assistant.
Abdul progressed rapidly, from standing tables, to blotting her letters, and made friends with the other servants in the palace, soon becoming comfortable and at home, something Victoria enjoyed writing about to others. Interestingly, the queen wrote regularly to various people, perhaps it was how things were done those days, even as people talked to each other. The queen wrote (about 2500 words on an average per day) to her friends and acquaintances, and also to Karim regularly, sometimes many letters a day to the same person, such was the system. The queen had only good things to say about him, and a large number of adjectives and superlatives are testament to that affection. Good natured, attentive, quiet, gentle, intelligent, has good sense, great accounting skills, even learning a smattering of French, and in a nutshell, he was to her - a through gentlemen.
Along the way, Abdul Karim taught the queen Hindustani/Urdu, introduced her to Indian curries, and obtained many privileges such as carrying a sword, wearing medals, playing billiards, a private carriage and a footman, his father was allowed to smoke a Hookah. The queen requisitioned her favorite artist to make a portrait of Karim and also sent out memos to her staff that Indians should not be called black and they should not hold any prejudice on account of their skin color.
The others in the palace deeply resented the growing relationship and made efforts to nip it quickly, like when a performance was arranged in 1889 and the queen added Karim to her family group. As the event started and they arrived, Karim saw that he was allocated a seat with the other servants and he stormed off in protest. The queen was unhappy and from then on made it a point to ensure he sat with the household. Another event where she supported Karim was when one of her brooches were missing and Karim’s Brother in law Hourmet Ali was suspected. The queen instead of castigating Karim, spoke in his support. She then went on to take him with her on a weekend jaunt to Glassalt Shiel, her private retreat, only to hear even more tongues wagging. Later on when Abdul developed a carbuncle in his neck, the queen was seen constantly visiting him and caring for him. Next we see that she organized for land to be perpetually granted to him in Delhi (that took many months and repeated efforts by the queen herself to cut through the procedural red tape) and Abdul going home in style on vacation.
Like it always happens, another Indian turned up at the London scene, one Rafiuddin Ahmed, who in turn published the queen’s Urdu writing from her diary. Ahmed was incidentally considered to be a spy of the Afghan emir and a small player in the ‘great game’, so the palace officials got alarmed when Ahmed using his friendship with Karim got copies of the queen’s diary and later used the same connections obtusely to curry other favors. Rafiuddin was to become a major reason for the problems faced afterwards by the Munshi.
In 1891, the Munshi’s wife (and mother in law) also arrived in London, and was an object of much curiosity for the queen, who found her shy and nice looking. The queen started visiting them at the Frogmore cottage often, delightedly remarking about hosting the first purdah clad ladies in Windsor castle, though a tad unhappy since they did not wear the sari, but salwar kameez’s.
Many more aspects of this strange friendship astounded royal watchers and the castle staff, the queen then decided to help the couple who were having difficulties having a baby, by asking her personal physician to check the wife himself. You can imagine how the prudish royal household, full of schemers and opportunists, took to these developments.
As the gossip mills churned, the queen was always quick to come behind the Munshi in support, while at the same time, the Munshi was taking full advantage the situation, like for example using the queen’s photographs with him, in an article about himself, in Italian newspapers. Letters and articles show the disdain the white servants had for the preferential treatment the Munshi, a person who in their opinion had much lower standing, was getting. Victorian England was nothing short of racist, but we knew that and the Munshi from his vantage point, was thumbing his nose at them, with royal support. In 1895, the queen awarded him the CIE – Companion of the order of the Indian empire, much to everybody’s indignation. Royals in India took note and complained that a lowly servant was given a CIE, while they were disregarded (he was later decorated with the Eastern star).
Karim, in the meanwhile as it was noted, cemented his stay at Frogmore cottage, filling it with souvenirs and presents from the queen. More Indian Muslim servants joined the queen’s entourage and the queen was at times seen to be conversing with them in Urdu over breakfast. All unsavory for the British nobility and not in line with their snobbery, as anybody would conclude. The queen talking in Urdu, to her servants!
In 1896, Karim took another trip to India and the British planned to have him surveilled, due to his proximity with people such as Rafiuddin, who they felt was joining up with others against the British empire. On Abdul’s return he found that the palace had started a revolt against the special privileges he was getting but that the queen was firmly on his side. The queen made it very clear that she would not tolerate race prejudice, and petty jealousness about a superior servant like the Munshi.
There are some who say he took advantage of her, ever demanding more and more, shouting at the old matriarch and so on, soon to become the most hated in the palace, but that portrait appears to be generally painted wrong, to me, though there could be some elements of truth in them. Sir James Reid probably had other reasons to be sore with the Munshi – It appears that he was asked on one occasion to supply to the Munshi's father a huge supply of drugs including six pounds of laudanum, two ounces of pure strychnine and enough poisons, he estimated, "to kill 15,000 grown men or an enormously larger number of children". This naturally raised heckles on his neck and he was wary of Abdul Karim ever after.
By 1897, the Munshi was also getting exasperated with the rough atmosphere in the palace and suggested that he will resign, as the queen upped the ante and wrote again in his support and expressing disgust, that her own British people, even her doctor Reid were spying on her and the Munshi’s movements.
The palace heated up, with Dr Reid talking about how low class the Munshi was, and that his father
In Jan 1901, the 81 year old queen passed away peacefully. Abdul Karim was allowed to say his personal farewell and see the queen’s body and walk in the funeral procession. This could not be refused as it had been willed so by the queen. A lock of Scotsman John Brown's hair, along with a picture of him, was placed in her left hand and concealed from the view of the family by a carefully positioned bunch of flowers. Items of jewelry included the wedding ring of John Brown's mother, given to her by Brown in 1883. That, I assume, may have provided consolation to those who felt she had given her heart to the Munshi Abdul Karim, 42 years her junior. The Victorian era had ended.
That was the end, the new king, Victoria’s son, the pompous Edward VII made sure all the queen’s Indian servants were quickly rounded up, all their presents and letters and other effects confiscated, and unceremoniously bundled back to India.
Edward seized all or Karim’s letters and souvenirs and had them burnt before Karim departed (though Karim as it appears, saved a few). In 1905 George V the crown prince met Karim in Delhi and stated that the Munshi had grown fat, but remained humble. The Munshi passed away in 1909, aged 46, and of those he had spent 13 in the blighty, with his queen. The paranoid Edward then had the viceroy send agents to his Agra house and get anything which remained with the grieving widow, even after Karim’s death.
As the British gentry remarked, there was no more queerness in the castle, ever after.
The Panchkuin kabaristan, once a burial ground for the Moghuls, is now home to a red sandstone mausoleum. Karim, his father and his wife are interred there. The rest of the family moved to Pakistan after 1947. Stray dogs and buffaloes pass by, and as his epitaph states, Abdul Karim is now alone in this world…
Plot 314 in a part of Agra, near the railway line and bijli ghar, near Ghati Azim khan, measuring to 141 acres, all gifted to him by his dear queen, was eventually of no use to him or his family (i.e. his brother, his sisters and their progeny), for most of them had decided to move to another nation hived off by the British and Jinnah, Pakistan. The Indian ministry of rehabilitation secured Karim lodge and the area belonging to him, allocating it to Hindu refugees from Pakistan.
Out there in the Bilayat, the blighty, Karim’s cottage, built for him by the queen, in Aberdeen is available for rental stays at over £1000 per week. They state that free sat TV and wi-fi are available, and that seven guests could be entertained comfortably in modern style. Karim’s name and relationship with the monarch is clearly something I assume, which could be used for profit.
Edward VII, Prince of Wales, who ascended the throne always despised Karim, and it was his complaint that the Queen sometimes discussed Indian matters and as is commonly believed, showed official papers to the Munshi. He as it seems, never got her ear or saw any of those papers and but naturally, his mother never took her playboy and boorish son seriously. She had once written to her eldest daughter, "I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder. Edward succumbed to lung disease by 1910, most probably due to his chain smoking habit. Finally, the son whom Victoria thought was the cause of her husband’s death was gone. Even though Edward comes across as a proper villain, it is also a curious fact that when he toured India in 1875, he mentioned about British racism in letters home, where he complained of the treatment of the native Indians by the British officials: "Because a man has a black face and a different religion from our own, there is no reason why he should be treated as a brute." Why did he hate Karim so much? Was it because his mother saw Karim as a son she always wanted? Perhaps! Karim on the other hand expresses his concern only once in his diaries of an unpleasantness in the palace.
Whatever happened to the Munshi’s widow? The Munshi’s wife died while sailing on the ship bound to Karachi. She was not destined to leave her husband’s side, and was interred with him in Agra.
Rafiuddin, the cause of much concern, retuned to India in 1909, became a minister of the Bombay government in 1928, was knighted (just imagine, the person who was considered a thorn in the British flesh gets knighted whereas the Munshi gets the boot for having been the same person’s friend on a previous occasion) in 1932, lived in Poona to talk about his glorious days in the queen’s court and died in 1954. The person who got him all that access, Abdul Karim, is not known or remembered by India, after all, he was nothing but a servant.
Queen Victoria was not one for racism (She had adopted a little African girl Sarah Forbes Bonetta in 1850, providing her with an education and a generous dowry when she got married) as this episode teaches us, and she valued human relationships. Theirs as Karim’s family was to testify to Basu, was a mother son relationship, perhaps a mother trying to repair the relationship of her country and family with her big daughter, the country India through this newfound son, Abdul Karim (many of her letters to him were signed ‘your loving mother’). She wanted to do something good in return for the representative of that land which was being used to enrich the British people, perhaps….But that is just my impression.
While this belonged to a pre-independence era, another relationship was to determine the destinies of India and Pakistan, that of Churchill, Ruttie and Jinnah. More about all of that for another rainy day…..
There is so much more to this story for those interested and they are advised to read Basu’s book, which is nicely written. I am a big fan, and her first book “Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan”, was quite telling.
The Indian Sahib, Queen Victoria’s Dear Abdul – Sushila Anand
Victoria and Abdul – Shrabani Basu
The Royal Munshi – Victoria’s secret – Farida Asrar