Queen Victoria’s closest friend in her final years… was actually a young servant from India. In 1887, the newly-minted Empress of India celebrated her Golden Jubilee. As a “gift from India”, she received two waiters. One of them was Abdul Karim, a 24-year-old clerk from Agra. He’s had a crash course in English language and manners shortly before arriving in Britain. He served the Queen and helped her interact with Indian dignitaries at the banquet. Victoria was fascinated by her new attendant from the very start. She described him as dutiful, “tall, and with a fine serious countenance”. One day Karim treated her to chicken curry with dal and pilau. The Queen loved the dish so much that it was added to her regular menu. The communication between them was stiff, and she asked him to teach her Urdu. Karim’s English lessons were also doubled. Soon they were able to correspond without any intermediaries. Though the Queen treated him well, Karim was not used to menial work. Far from home, he felt like “a sojourner in a strange land and among a strange people”. He wanted to return to India, so Victoria had to come up with something to keep him. Just a year after his arrival, he was promoted to “Munshi”, the Queen’s personal teacher. The court was angry and terrified by such a rapid career advancement. Not only Karim was of the lower class, but he was also of a different race. He traveled with Victoria and was allowed to leave for India a couple of times. His father got a pension and his former employer a promotion upon his request. The Munshi was given residences at the main royal estates in the UK and back in Agra. His wife joined him in Britain and regularly had tea with the Queen herself. He enjoyed the best opera seats and was even moved to John Brown’s bedchamber. Brown was the Queen’s previous servant and favorite who died in 1883. In 1895, Karim was decorated as a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire. Victoria commissioned numerous portraits of her confidant. She signed her letters to him with kisses and as “your closest friend” and “your loving mother”. Though they did spend a night alone at a Scottish cottage, they were never lovers. When the Queen died in 1901, he was the last to see her body before her casket was closed. After that, Karim was expelled from the court and returned to India. Victoria’s letters to him were burnt in front of him by the new king’s order. Her heirs made sure no trace of the Munshi could be found. But his diary survived. His story became widely known nearly a century after his death in 1909.
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