Shrabani Basu’s new book tells the tale of Queen Victoria’s Indian confidante
Unearthing pieces of history and then offering them to readers in the form a gripping book seems to be a tough job. And if one happens to be a busy correspondent of The Telegraph in London besides being a mother of two growing children, how does one find the time to pen not one but three epic books, each blended with exhaustive details from the past? If anyone can reveal the mantra of successfully balancing home and office duties, it's author and journalist Shrabani Basu.
Ask Basu, whose latest book Victoria and Abdul has captured the imagination of history lovers, how she manages to pack so much in 24 hours, she simply says, "You cut out the unnecessary." Of course, it also entails being completely focused and time conscious. "I didn't see a single film for a whole year. It would have meant wasting precious time. I do not waste time shopping, and I cut down on attending the number of functions and receptions that I get invited to," she adds.
Basu’s schedule is indeed meticulously planned. Her day begins at 5 am and like any regular mom, she dedicates her time to packing lunch for her children and getting them ready for school. That done, she heads to her study — a little box room overlooking a picturesque patch of green — and puts in a few hours of work before the daily chores take over again. "I am a morning person," states Basu. "If I am satisfied with the work I have done during the day, I love to relax and enjoy the evening with friends. I also find cooking very relaxing." Most of her writing is done over weekends and after work. Holidays are usually dedicated to going through the archives.
"Yes," she admits, "It does take a lot of juggling." But the juggling act is not limited to the home. She has to struggle with her role as a journalist, who deals with news as it breaks, and an author whose research requires her to constantly engage with the past. How does she deal with the dichotomy? Reveals Basu, "I love history. I studied it for five years at St Stephen's College in Delhi. I find my novels in the stories I cover as a journalist. For instance, while doing a story on the 50 years of VE (Victory in Europe) Day and the Indian veterans, I read about Noor (Noor Inayat Khan), saw her photo and was intrigued." The result: the acclaimed book, Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan.
So, what inspired Victoria and Abdul? "I found Abdul as a footnote while researching for my book on curry. He introduced Queen Victoria to the Indian curry. Then I came across his portrait at Osborne House. The way he was dressed in this very regal fashion, he looked like a nawab (noble man). I knew he was no ordinary man. I got down to researching about him in 2006 soon after I finished Spy Princess," says Basu.
Victoria and Abdul spans 13 crucial years in the life of a nation — defined through the relationship between the British queen and her Indian servant, who entered her life gift-wrapped in Indian regal attire — a turban, red tunic and jewels — to wait at the table. He rose to become her closest confidante and she, his. He later came to be known as the Munshi.
The fact that the two were close is evident from the daily letters Queen Victoria wrote to him. Abdul must have shared with her the fact that his wife could not conceive, for the queen wrote to him in great detail what they needed to do to have a baby. She also recommended that he has his wife checked up by a lady doctor and mentioned that she knew what she was talking about as she had given birth to nine children. Surprisingly, she has discussed all this with no Victorian prudery.
The relationship between the two did set tongues wagging. Abdul taught the queen Hindustani and her pocket dairy is filled with Hindustani phrases written in English. Among them are some curious ones: ‘The egg is not boiled enough’, ‘The tea is always bad’, ‘You will miss the Munshi’, and 'Hold me tight’. Of course, before the readers' imagination can run wild, Basu quickly reveals that Abdul was in his mid-twenties and the Queen was in her mid-sixties. She sometimes fussed over him like a mother!
One would think poring over old manuscripts for hours in some library would be a lonesome job. Victoria and Abdul is based on some hundred letters and royal dairies — but Basu says she enjoys the research very much. "I was chuckling to myself all the time, laughing my head off as I went through the letters between the Royal staff that mention Abdul Karim. They are very funny. Some of them are very sarcastic, full of dry British humour — the Wodehouse kind," she smiles.
Victoria and Abdul took three years of research. "While you dig out the past, the more you know, the better it is. Small insignificant details, like the weather, the gossip of that time add colour to the narrative and bring the story alive," she says. Facts like the Queen giving special permission to Abdul’s father to smoke the hukkah in the palace when he came to London to meet his son, or that she wanted to see Abdul's wife wear her nose ring are small but insightful details.
At times, a small detail can be so interesting that it could mean a whole new chapter. Like the one on the Christmas card that Abdul sent to Queen Victoria, which Basu came across towards the end of her research. "It has little hearts on it with fairies and flowers, and says ‘with love from me to you’. It was a most inappropriate card to be sent to the Queen and created a furore in the palace." Basu elaborates.
While a historian would simply rely only on old material, the journalist in Basu craves to experience and see things for herself. So, it became important for her to go and see Abdul's weekend cottage in Scotland and she did not mind the four-hour trudge she had to undertake to reach it. She also spent days hunting for his house and grave in Agra, India.
"Research is fun," states Basu. "It is the structuring of the book that is tough. When I am in the middle of writing the book, I keep thinking of its structure all the time. How should I introduce the topic? How should I start the chapter? Even while exercising in the gym or doing laps in the pool, I am thinking."
Basu reveals that the manuscript went through many drafts, with chapters being fused, new ones added and details filled in. Even after she sent it to the publisher, she continued to update whenever she uncovered new facts. "The publisher had to finally tell me no more changes!"
Of course, all this is impossible without a supportive family. Her children help her with technology "The publisher wanted the notes to be written in a certain way. My children figured it out for me!" she says. Her husband did his share of babysitting and was looking after their younger daughter back in London, when she launched her India tour to promote the book.
But perhaps her greatest
strength lies in the way she manages to switch between being a
journalist and a historical writer. As she says, "It is in the
present that I find the past." —