Authors: Shrabani Basu
‘You are looking for Queen Victoria’s
!’ he said. ‘Yes, I know where he is buried. Tomorrow we will go there.’
Panchkuin Kabaristan in Agra was once a burial ground for the Mughals. Now it is a dusty expanse of mud and grass, with buffaloes grazing amongst the crumbling gravestones. A few mausoleums stand intact – graves of the lesser relatives of the Mughal emperors – their semi-precious carvings vandalised and innocuous graffiti on the walls. No one comes here anymore, said Nizam Khan, the elderly Muslim caretaker of the graveyard. He cut a lost figure in the wilderness, looking after the graves that time and history had left behind. Khan led the way purposefully through the field, picking his way past unmarked graves, bramble bushes and stray dogs basking lazily in the winter sun. The dogs soon joined our procession, wagging their tails and running ahead, as if providing an escort to the Munshi’s lonely grave.
At last, Nizam Khan stopped and pointed. ‘This is it,’ he announced dramatically, sensing our anticipation. Resting on a high plinth and surrounded by smaller graves, was a red sandstone mausoleum. We mounted the steep stairs to the tomb. Inside were three graves. Abdul Karim’s lay in the middle, his father’s grave to his right. The marble gravestone, once studded with semi-precious stones, had been plundered long ago. There was no one left to tend the grave now or bring flowers. The remainder of Karim’s extended family had left for Pakistan after the Partition in 1947. The man who had lived in Windsor Castle and been the Empress’s closest confidant now lay in a bleak unkempt graveyard guarded by an elderly caretaker and a few stray dogs. His Queen had provided generously for him and ironically it was
the crumbling of her Empire that had changed the world of his descendants. The land had gone, given to Hindu families who had come as refugees from Pakistan, and the high mausoleum – once fairly grand – now overlooked only derelict graves.
Nizam Khan read out the words on Abdul Karim’s gravestone in Urdu, his voice rising and falling as he orated, carrying across the desolate fields:
This is the last resting place of
Hafiz Mohammed Abdul Karim, CIEVO,
He is now alone in the world
His caste was the highest in Hindustan
None can compare with him
The poet finds it difficult to praise him
There is so much to say
Even Empress Victoria was so pleased with him
She made him her Hindustani ustad
He lived in England for many years
And let the river of his kindness
flow through this land
The poet prays for him
That he finds eternal peace in this resting place
Inscribed in Urdu behind the gravestone were the words: ‘One day everybody has to enjoy the sweetness of death.’
On my return to the Royal Archives at Windsor, I sat in the castle’s Round Tower looking through the thick volumes of Queen Victoria’s Hindustani Journals. For thirteen years the elderly Queen had written a page every day. Abdul Karim would write a line in Urdu, then in English and a third line in Urdu in roman letters so the Queen could hear the rich cadences of the words. The Queen diligently copied the lines, covering the page in her sprawling handwriting. Through winter evenings and balmy summer days, the Journals became the strongest bond between
Victoria and Abdul. The pages entered in it were their own private space, away from the problems of Court, a troublesome family and the ever suspicious and demanding Household. The Queen never missed a lesson. She would complain almost coquettishly if Karim was absent, writing how much she missed her ‘dear Abdul’ when he went on leave. We can hear Abdul’s voice in his written thoughts at the end of each volume as he assessed the Queen’s progress.
As I sat daydreaming, looking out of the window at the crowds of tourists below, a pink piece of blotting paper floated out of the Journals. It had been lying untouched in the Journal for over a century. I held the strip of paper in my hand and pictured Karim, dressed in all his finery, standing by the Queen, gently bowing down to blot her signature. It was as if an entire chapter of history – that the political establishment had tried to destroy – was lying in front of me: the story of an unknown Indian servant and his Queen, of an Empire and the Jewel in the Crown, and above all, of love and human relationships.
he call of the muezzin to prayer floated over the city of Agra in the dawn, waking up the residents. The summer heat had made even the nights unbearable and Abdul Karim was almost relieved to leave his bed. His young bride was still asleep. It was the few tranquil minutes of the morning that he loved. He walked on the terrace surveying the roof-tops of the neighbouring houses. Not far away he could see the high walls of the Central Jail where he and his father worked. Soon all of Agra would be awake and buzzing, the
and bazaars full of traders, artisans,
and people getting about their work. Cows would stand on the crowded streets lazily chewing the vegetables from the vendors’ carts and elephants would sway through the narrow lanes carrying their loads of logs, grain, cotton and carpets to the
As Karim sat down on a mat to pray, the first rays of the sun fell on the Taj Mahal, bathing it in a warm glow as the gentle waters of the Yamuna flowed behind. Further upstream, strategically positioned at a bend in the river, stood the impressive Agra Fort, a towering piece of architecture built in red sandstone by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century, when he was at the pinnacle of his glory. Agra was known then as Akbarabad, capital city of the Mughal Empire. Within the walls of the Fort lay the history of four generations of the Mughal Emperors: tales of war, romance, court intrigues and brutality. It was in the splendour of the
Diwan I Khas
, or the Hall of Private Audience, with its marble columns inlaid with rich gemstones – lapis lazuli, garnet, jade, jasper and carnelian – that Emperor Shah Jehan had
received the embassies of William Hawkins and Sir Thomas Roe, who came seeking permission for the East India Company to trade with India. The English and Dutch subsequently established their factories in Agra. It was in the Jasmine Tower of the Fort that the ageing Shah Jehan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb, and here that he languished till his dying day gazing through the tiny prison window at his beloved Taj Mahal, the mausoleum he had built for his Queen, Mumtaz Mahal.
Karim’s family had lived in Agra for the last four years, enjoying the city’s rich Mughal heritage, which was now combined with the spit and polish of British administration. The original family home was in nearby Farrukhabad in the United Provinces. Karim’s father, Haji Wuzeeruddin, had been brought up by his stepfather, Maulvi Mohammed Najibuddin, who took care to provide him with a good education. In 1845 Najibuddin was employed as private secretary to an Englishman, William Jay, who was very kind to the family, encouraging young Wuzeeruddin and employing him in his services. From 1856 to 1859, Haji Wuzeeruddin worked in the Vaccine Department of Agra. In 1861 he received his diploma as hospital assistant and served in the 36th Regiment North India from November 1861 to March 1874 working in various cantonment towns in north and central India. It was in Lalatpur cantonment near Jhansi that Abdul Karim was born in 1863.
Karim was to grow up in an India very different from that of his father – one that was governed directly by the British Crown and not the East India Company. Six years earlier, the land of his birth had been the principal theatre-ground of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Haji Wuzeeruddin had been an eye-witness to the event that would be described later by Indian nationalists as the First War of Indian Independence. Karim’s birthplace, near Jhansi, was synonymous with the fiery Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, who had donned battle armour, mounted her faithful steed and led her troops against the forces of the East India Company during the Mutiny.
Soldiers from the cantonment of Meerut in the United Provinces had taken up arms against their commanders, liberating imprisoned soldiers and killing many English officers. Soon neighbouring towns of Agra, Cawnpore (modernday Kanpur) and Gwalior were captured by the mutineers and the rebels began
plotting the downfall of the East India Company. They looked north to Delhi, where the ageing Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, still held Court in the Red Fort and chose him as their symbolic leader. The eighty-two-year-old, famous more for his
and Urdu poetry than for his statesmanship, declared himself Emperor of India, directly challenging British authority. The rulers from various central and northern Indian states rallied under his name. The mutineers met with initial success, British forces not being prepared for the rebellion. The siege of Delhi lasted for nearly four months, but on 21 September, Delhi fell to the Company troops. Bahadur Shah Zafar was given a brief trial and exiled to Rangoon in Burma; the last Mughal Emperor and descendant of Tamerlane, leaving Delhi unceremoniously in an ox-cart, ending an era of Indian history.
The British revenge was extreme. Hundreds were hanged after elementary trials and others were executed by tying them to the mouths of cannons and blowing them up. Delhi was desecrated, many of its historic monuments raided and plundered, artefacts and manuscripts looted and destroyed, and hundreds of ordinary civilians executed. The residents of Agra were fined collectively for helping the rebels. Many Mughal buildings and houses in Agra were demolished. The blood of the mutineers stained the dusty plains of central and northern India as they were hanged from trees and public posts as a warning to anyone who challenged Company rule in the future. Karim was born on the same land six years after the guns of the mutineers were silenced.
He was only thirteen when Queen Victoria was given the title of Empress of India in 1876 by Benjamin Disraeli. The East India Company had been dissolved in 1858 and ruling power transferred directly to the British Crown. The Secretary of State for India now dealt with Indian affairs in Westminster and the Viceroy represented the Crown in India.
The Queen was delighted with her new title and sent a message to the Delhi Durbar held on 1 January 1877: ‘We must trust that the present occasion may tend to unite in bonds of yet closer affection ourselves and our subjects, that from the highest to the humblest all may feel that under our rule the great principles of liberty, equity and justice are secured to them.’ Karim would have heard this message as a teenager living in Meerut City.
With the British Crown now directly in charge of the administration of the provinces, radical changes were made. The railways were constructed with frenetic zeal to provide direct and quick access to the interior of the country, linking Cawnpore, Lucknow, Meerut and Agra, the major northern Indian cities that had been touched by the Mutiny. The East India Railway connected Calcutta directly to Delhi, and the Central India Railway connected cities like Bombay and Baroda to the north.