In the present scenario of cyber bullying ,the name ‘Abdul’ is used to demonise and defame Muslims as illiterate creature full of hate. But lesser known fact is that one such Abdul transcended from being an ordinary clerk to becoming a powerful figure within the British Royal Court. His name was Mohammad Abdul Karim, titled The Munshi.
Early life :
Born in 1863 in a Muslim household ,his father Haji Muhammad Waziruddin was a hospital assistant with The Central India Horse.
According to English historian and author Shrabani Basu, Abdul Karim was a 24 year old clerk at Central Jail Agra when he was sent to England during the Golden Jubilee Celebration of 1887 to ‘wait tables’
The Royal Servant:
Queen Victoria became fascinated by the Indian culture on seeing sophisticated carpets woven by workers under Abdul karim at Colonial Exhibition. She asked the prison’s superintendent to assign her two Indian on-hand.
Thus Abdul karim was selected along with Mohammad Baksh.They given instructions in English Language and British customs and sent halfway across the world to ‘wait tables’
What made the ordinary clerk unique in the eye of the Queen?
Abdul Karim’s chivalry and calm nature caught the Queen’s attention. She was highly impressed with his religious conduct.
In 1888 she had written to Sir Theodore Martin that “Munshi is an excellent, clever, truly pious and very refined gentleman, who says ‘God ordered it’, God’s orders is what they implicitly obey. Such faith as theirs and such conscientiousness sets us a great example”.
But what impressed the Queen the most was Abdul Karim’s command over Urdu language. Thus Abdul Karim was honoured with the title ‘Munshi’ (teacher) and elevated to the status of a noble.
A Munshi, a friend, a confidant:
Abdul Karim acknowledged this honourable post with utmost loyalty and dedication. He started to teach Queen Victoria to speak in Urdu, offering her lessons every evening.
He also created a phrasebook of everyday urdu words for the Queen to use for speaking to her Indian servants as welll as visiting royalty. These were written in Roman script.
Abdul Kareem assisted Queen Victoria in her daily administration with letters. The Queen also used his briefing on political development in India.
Apart from this ,the curry Abdul Karim once cooked for her won her approval to the extent that it remained in the royal menu for good 13 years.
In return,the Queen made him his highest decorated secretary. He was allowed to carry a sword and wear his medals in the court. The best positions in operas and banquets were reserved for him.
Abdul kareem was given cottages in royal palace’s ground along with private horse carriage and footman. Soon his family joined him.
The animosity this friendship earned:
Not all was well in Abdul Karim’s utopia.
At the end of the day he was a brown skinned Indian. Seeing him being seating at the same table with the superior didnt go well with the royal family and household.
They loathed him alike, lewd shades were thrown at their friendship. The race and social prejudice was so high that he was falsely accused of seeing confidential letters and passing it on to groups pressing for self-governance in India. All these allegation fell flat on the face, the Queen paid no heed and called this shameful.
Abdul karim was cleared of charges but the hatred for him in household intensified. Be it the Queen’s son Arthur , her sectetary Fritz Ponsonby or her Doctor, Sir James Reid. Dr James Reid was most hostile,” You are from a very low class and can never be a gentleman ” he wrote in a threatening letter to Karim.
The Queen’s demise and consequences thereafter:
On January 22, 1901, Queen Victoria passed away. She gave prior instructions that Munshi be given the honour of being among the principal mourners at her funeral. He was the last person to see her before the casket closed.
With the Queen’s demise the virtual shield keeping Karim safe was ripped. Nothing protected him from the ire of the English Court.
King Edward VII ordered every letter written and every records of their conversation to be burned.Queen Victoria’s daughter Beatrice erased all references to Karim in Queen’s journal.
The only records spared were the one written by the court themselves. It depicted Abdul karim in poor light as a manipulative arrogant man of common birth who used the Queen for his benefits.
Lady Curzon wrote “The Munshi returned to India like a whipped hound. All the Indian servants have gone back so now there is no oriental picture or queerness at court”.
Even after Abdul Karim’s return,his residence in Agra continued to be raided on order of King Edward. Some of the raids continued even after Karim’s demise. But Viceroy Minto and his staff disapproved of such raids and the seized papers were returned to his widow (these were Karim’s lost diary held secretly by his family)
The final token of appreciation between closest friends:
Queen Victoria changed her will with utmost secrecy and left her Munshi a massive plot of land in india and a small fortune generally reserved for war heroes.
Munshi being a man of his word and piousness never encashed his friendship with the Queen. He continued to be her confidant till his last breath.
Munshi Mohammed Abdul Karim passed away at the age on 46, in year 1909, eight years after the Queen’s demise.
His last words in his diary read “I pray to the Almighty for the richest blessings to be showered down on our good Queen Empress”.
In the letters witten by the Queen to him, the Queen signed off as “your loving mother and your closest friend”