Wednesday, November 16, 2011

VRI: Hum Aapke Hein Kaun?

Victoria Regina Imperatrix (queen and empress) would have loved the Internet, especially email, sms and chat. Like Gandhi, the Empress of India was an inveterate letter writer. She would probably have hogged the cell phone too. She talked and talked at the drop of a hat … oops, crown. At least, that’s how she comes across in Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queens’s Closest Confidant. Eerily though, the narrative bears a lot of resemblance to a current-day Indian soap opera as well as a reality show like Big Boss. Abdul Karim, a lowly assistant clerk from Agra went to London to serve as the Royal khidmatgaar (personal attendant) at the time of the Golden Jubilee celebrations and rose to become her closest confidant as well as her Munshi (Hindustani tutor). As he ascended in the Queen’s esteem, he also accumulated a horde of powerful enemies at the Court. They were insanely jealous of his success and his closeness to VRI which he made a point of flaunting in their faces. The Court intrigues that followed read like episodes straight out of Big Boss. The Munshi’s behaviour was undoubtedly far from exemplary. He was overbearing and obnoxious. He also managed to parley his closeness to the Queen into a continuous stream of Page 3 mentions in the European press on both sides of the English Channel. The astounding part was the downright mean-spirited and vicious manÅ“uvres by the snobbish British aristocracy, the Viceroys, including the Keeper of the Royal Exchequer, the Queen’s Personal Physician as well as her own offsprings all behaving no better than common guttersnipes. Victoria tried to shield her Munshi at all cost, accusing his detractors quite perceptively of colour and race prejudice. As the Great Game between Britain and Russia was always afoot on the Afghan border, the conspirators even tried to implicate Abdul’s friend Rafiuddin, a journalist, as an informer to the Afghans but with no success. By the way, one of VRI’s favourite gestures of showing favour was to have the favourite person’s portrait painted by a well-known painter. Both Abdul Karim and Rafiuddin got the treatment. The book is an entertaining read and could well be turned into an absorbing mini-series for television.