Read Victoria & Abdul Online

Authors: Shrabani Basu

Victoria & Abdul (5 page)

After the Mutiny, the British had regulated the running of the Indian army and Karim lived his early life in the cantonment of Lalatpur and Meerut City, watching the parading soldiers and dreaming of one day being in uniform. He was the second of six children, with an elder brother, Abdul Azeez, and four younger sisters.

The 36th Regiment then moved to Agra and Karim was placed under a regular tutor, though he spent most of his time with the other boys playing in the fields. ‘In my elementary education I regret I spent more time in play than in work,’ he wrote later in his memoirs. ‘Being my mother’s favorite, I was rather over-indulged and my studies were very irregular.’
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In 1874 Haji Wuzeeruddin was transferred to the Second Regiment of the Central India Horse which was stationed in Agar, an area on the border of Rajputana and the Central Provinces (present-day Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh). After a year’s stay in Agar, Wuzeeruddin sent for his family who travelled there by bullock carts covering twenty-two miles a day. It took them one month to reach Agar.

In Agar, Karim’s parents paid more attention to his education and he was handed over to a private tutor, a Maulvi (Muslim scholar), with whom he studied till the age of eighteen. He was taught Persian and Urdu, the Court language of the Mughals, and read books on Islam and the Prophet.

In 1878 Britain was entangled in the Anglo-Afghan war and the following year, Haji Wuzeeruddin received orders to go to Afghanistan with the First and Second Regiments of the Central India Horse under the command of Col Martin. Karim, who was seventeen at the time, was overcome with grief at this news as he felt he would never see his father again.‘I at once made up my mind not to remain behind in ease and comfort and let my father go unattended to encounter the hardships of the campaign,
especially when I felt confident I could be of assistance to him,’ he wrote. Despite the objection of his parents, Karim accompanied his father on the journey.

They passed through Lahore, ‘a splendid city’, where the mausoleums and shrines were ‘magnificent and numberless’, to Jhelum, Rawalpindi and Peshawar, stopping at the forts of Basawal, Sandamuck and Jellalabad. Karim was eager to explore, taking in the rugged countryside and the tribal terrain. It was famously to the fort of Jellalabad that the exhausted British soldier, Dr William Bryden, had come on 13 January 1842; the lone survivor of 16,000 troops who perished on the road from Kabul during the First Afghan War of 1837–42, a picture etched forever in the minds of the British administration and captured dramatically on canvas by artists to remember the war’s high casualties. Nearly forty years later, Afghanistan remained on the boil and the British constantly feared that the Russians would attempt to enter India through Afghanistan. The Second Afghan War broke out in 1878, after the British and the Russians clashed over setting up a mission in Afghanistan.

No sooner had Wuzeeruddin’s regiment reached Jellalabad, when they were ordered to start at once on the famous march to Kandahar under General Roberts in August 1880. Roberts had been a junior officer during the siege of Delhi in the Mutiny. Within three hours the soldiers were on the road. Wuzeeruddin accompanied them as a medical assistant, but despite Karim’s pleas to remain, he had to turn back as he had no formal position in the army. Karim covered the 500 miles back from Jhelum to Agra alone, returning to find his mother sick with worry.

The historic march from Kabul to Kandahar with 10,000 men ended in a resounding British victory and the defeat of the Afghan lord, Sardar Mohammed Ayub Khan. A few months later the Second Afghan War was over and General Roberts returned triumphantly to England where he was knighted.

When Wuzeeruddin returned after the war, he was given four months’ leave. ‘All our family were so pleased and happy to see his face once more,’ wrote Karim.‘We were all thankful to Providence for having brought us all together again.’

Karim travelled with him again to Kabul, where he marvelled at the sight of the Khyber Pass, the fifty-three-kilometre narrow road that cuts through the Hindu Kush mountains, used by
invaders for centuries since the time of Alexander the Great. The precipitous cliffs guarded by the fierce Pashtun tribes, the austere forts standing in bleak mountain deserts and the famous bazaars of Kabul overflowing with watermelon and dry fruits, were a far cry from the gentle plains of the Yamuna that Karim had grown up in.

When they returned, Karim took up employment with the Nawab of Jawara, who appointed him as the Naib Wakil (assistant representative) to the Agency of Agar. Meanwhile, the British government issued an order permitting the exchange of military for civil appointments and Wuzeeruddin transferred to the Central Jail at Agra. It was while Karim was working for the nawab that his family arranged his marriage in Agra and Karim took two months’ leave to travel for his wedding. He returned to Agar feeling lonesome and homesick. ‘There was however no help for it as duty must conquer sentiment so I remained,’ he wrote, working steadily for another twelve months before he took a month’s leave to return to his family.

After three years’ service with the Nawab of Jawara, Karim resigned and joined his father at Agra, taking up a position as a vernacular clerk to the superintendent of the Central Jail. His salary was fixed at Rs 10 a month. Both father and son were now employed at the same place. Wuzeeruddin moved with his family to the Hariparbat area near the jail. The family owned about five acres of land in the surrounding area. Karim enjoyed hunting with his brother in the forests around Agra, which were full of deer, black buck and tigers. The surrounding lakes of Rajasthan were the nesting grounds of a variety of wild fowl, particularly the migrating cranes who came every winter from Siberia and stayed till spring. Agra, the city of the Taj, was now the stable family home. It was here that Karim settled down with his young bride. His wife’s brothers also worked at the jail and the closely-knit family soon became well known in the area.

On that summer morning in Agra, when Karim looked out over the city, he did not know that his life was about to change.

The first stirrings of human life had begun and the banks of the Yamuna were already crowded with camels and elephants, led by their owners to drink and carry back the day’s water supply. In the markets of Loha Mandi and Sadar Bazar the traders were
opening their red cloth-bound ledgers and fixing the commodity prices for the day. Spices, cotton, wheat, gram, oil, sugarcane – all the produce of the fertile region – would pass through their keen fingers as they struck their deals. Agra had been the hub of trade activity since Mughal times and so it continued under the British as the trade corridor that connected Central and West India on one side and the rugged North-West on the other.

Artisans were also at work. Carpet weavers were streaming into the looms of Otto Weyladt and Co., the largest carpet manufacturers in Agra, to weave the finest carpets for the export market. In the narrow streets and shops around the jail, the craftsmen were beginning their delicate job of stone inlay work, practised for centuries since the time of Emperor Akbar, cutting the huge slabs of marble and fashioning them into exquisite handicrafts set with precious gems.

As the clinking sound of their hammer and chisel striking the stone began to fill the air, Karim said goodbye to his father, adjusted his
pugree
and strode out of the house towards the Central Jail. A tall man, nearly six feet in height, with dark intense eyes and a neatly clipped black beard, he looked impressive. Today was an important day. He had been summoned to meet with John Tyler, the jail’s superintendent.

Tyler was a busy man. A doctor by profession, he was well loved for his warmth and geniality but known for a lack of tact and a hot temper.
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As an Anglo-Indian he was fluent in Hindustani and at ease with the natives. Tyler had just returned to Agra from London from the successful Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, at the inauguration of which the second verse of the English national anthem had been uniquely sung in Sanskrit. He had been in charge of thirty-four inmates from Agra Jail who had attended the exhibition. The inmates had been schooled in carpet weaving as part of the jail rehabilitation programme, a tradition started by Emperor Akbar who brought the finest carpet weavers from Persia to India as teachers. Since the prisoners had all the time in the world, they could work at leisure to produce the exquisite Mughal carpets in silk, cotton and wool. The jail carpets were internationally famous and the tradition of training the inmates was carried on by the British administration.

The carpet weavers from Agra Jail had impressed Queen Victoria with their skills. It was Karim, Tyler’s assistant clerk, who
had helped him select the carpets to send to England for the exhibition and had chosen the artisans, who he had supervised before they left for England. The superintendent of the jail had also wanted to send a pair of traditional gold
kadas
or bracelets for the Queen and Karim had proven useful again. Tyler found the young man efficient and trusted his fine aesthetic sense. Karim had chosen a pair of
kadas
set in solid gold, embossed with traditional
meenakari
, or painted enamel work, with two dragon heads at the terminals. The
kadas
were wrapped in Indian silk and velvet and packed for the Queen. Tyler’s gift was much appreciated. On 20 September 1886, the Queen wrote to Tyler expressing her delight and letting him know that she had worn them the previous evening.

Tyler told Karim about the success of the exhibition and thanked him for his help. The jail superintendent now had another proposition for him. During his trip to London, the Queen had discussed the possibility of employing some Indian servants during the Jubilee. She was expecting a number of Indian Princes for the celebration and felt she could do with someone to help her address the Indians presented to her.
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Tyler felt he had just the person for her. He then asked Karim if he would like to travel to England to be the Queen’s orderly during the Jubilee celebrations the following year.

Karim was dumbstruck. He had expected a promotion, but not of this scale. To travel the seas to the Mother Country and personally serve the Queen was a dream come true. He looked at the portrait of Queen Victoria on Tyler’s office wall, sitting on the throne in all her glory and felt a sudden rush of adrenalin, before accepting the offer. It was decided there and then that he would journey to England on a year’s leave of absence.

Karim had understood the word ‘orderly’ in the Indian context, which means a person who accompanies the sovereign or other person of high rank on horseback. It was a higher position than that of an orderly in the British army, who was a private soldier attending his officer. ‘It was in the former sense of the word that I accepted the proposal to go to England,’ wrote Karim, not aware then that he would be required to wait on the Queen, not ride splendidly behind her on horseback.

What followed was a hectic period for Karim as he was trained in English social customs and etiquette. As servant to the Queen,
he would have to learn all the protocol of the Royal Household. He was taught how to greet the Queen, to bow correctly and practised standing still for long periods. He was told that new servants never looked the Queen directly in the eye but at her feet. He learnt about the Queen’s family – the Prince and Princess of Wales, the other Royal children and the European connections. He was told about the three Royal residences that the Queen used – Windsor Castle, Balmoral and Osborne House – and was informed that Windsor was the Queen’s preferred place to stay. She rarely spent the night at Buckingham Palace, which was used for all state occasions. In the few months before his departure, Karim was given a crash course in English, enough to allow him to communicate with the Queen and Household. Every night he sat by the lamplight with an illustrated phrase book given to him by Tyler, studying the everyday words that he would have to use in England.

A well-known Agra tailor was summoned and a set of special clothes were made for Karim – long Indian-style tunics in deep red and blue – with matching
pugrees
and waistbands. These were worn with loose white trousers or
salwars
. In the little free time he had, Karim also asked his wife to teach him to cook some of his favourite recipes for when he arrived in England. In the family home in Hariparbat, excitement levels were high as young Karim prepared to cross the seas and wait on Queen Victoria. His brothers-in-law, two of whom worked in Agra Jail, came visiting and gently teased Karim as he struggled with his lessons. His mother-in-law gave him her blessings and told him to take care in the cold.

Karim was soon to meet his travelling companion and fellow Indian servant, Mohammed Buksh. The portly and good-natured Buksh worked for General Thomas Dennehy, political agent in Rajputana, and managed his whole household. Dennehy was to take up his new position as the Queen’s extra groom-in-waiting and would be in charge of the Indian servants when they arrived in England. Buksh had worked for several years with the Rana of Dholpore, the head of a princely state in the neighbourhood of Agra in Rajputana, and was quite used to the job of cook and waiter. Karim, who had worked as a clerk, was not familiar with the job, but was a willing learner, buoyed by the prospect of serving the Empress of India and helping in the Jubilee celebrations.

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