Read Victoria & Abdul Online

Authors: Shrabani Basu

Victoria & Abdul (6 page)

When the clothes were stitched, his English lessons complete and travelling case ready, Karim instructed his wife to pack some of his favourite
pan
and betel nuts for the long journey. He also carried a box of Indian spices. Unlike Hindu families in India, who did not approve of crossing the seas and eating food cooked by Westerners, the Muslims had no religious problems with a sea journey. Both Karim and Buksh, however, wanted to be sure that they could prepare and eat their own Indian food.

When the day arrived for Karim to leave, he said an emotional goodbye to his family and set off on his new adventure.‘On the 17th of May I left Agra and all that was dear to me,’ he wrote.
4
The journey would take them by train from Agra to Bombay and then by steamer mail to England. On 20 May Karim boarded the P&O steamer
Cathay
accompanied by Dr Tyler, Buksh and some Bharatpore sardars. He felt a catch in his throat as Bombay port disappeared from sight and the ship steered over the clear blue waters of the Arabian Sea.

2

A J
UBILEE
P
RESENT

W
eeks before the Golden Jubilee, preparations had begun in London for what was to be the biggest party of the year. Journalists and photographers kept watch at the major ports and railway stations as royalty and nobility from around the world began their descent on London. They stepped off steamers and first-class carriages, elegantly dressed, children and nannies in tow, servants and porters in attendance with mountains of luggage. The London season was in full swing and nothing was too excessive. Showcasing Britain’s Empire were the Indian Princes, who were specially invited by the Crown and who would form a major part of the celebrations. It was suggested by the government that the wealth and glamour of the heavily jewelled Maharajahs, Maharanis and Indian Princes would add to the pomp of the Jubilee and display the loyalty of the Indian rulers and the colonies.

The business of rounding up the Princes was no easy matter. Many Hindu Maharajahs were forbidden from travelling the seas – crossing the proverbial
kala pani
(dark waters) – by their religion. Others were eager to come, but were completely unsuitable. Telegrams flew between the Secretary of State at the India Office in Whitehall, the Viceroy’s office in Calcutta and the offices of the political agents in the princely states. The Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, sent detailed profiles of the Princes to Lord Cross, the Secretary of State, carefully weeding through the suitable candidates, cherry-picking those who would look handsome and elegant in their native clothes, could speak English fluently and would be reasonably at home in a Western environment. Balancing the three had proven quite a challenge.

The ‘best blood in India’ Dufferin could get was Pertab Singh, the scion of a great Rajput house, brother of the Maharajah of Jodhpur, who agreed to ‘try the experiment’ of crossing the seas. But even the great Rajput had his shortcomings. ‘His own appearance especially out of native clothes, is not prepossessing,’ warned the Viceroy.
1
Dufferin reported that Pertab Singh unfortunately did not speak English well, his teeth were disfigured by betel chewing and ‘his only notion of smart get-up is to make himself look as like an English jockey as possible’. He was, at least, very sporty and excelled in all equestrian accomplishments such as pig-sticking, riding and racing.

What Pertab Singh lacked in appearance, he made up for in rank and what the others lacked in rank, they made up for in appearance. The Maharajah of Cooch Behar, thought Dufferin, was a good choice as he quite fitted ‘the British idea of what an Indian Rajah should look like’. Cooch Behar, he informed Cross, looked very gentlemanlike even in European clothes and took with him a ‘dear little wife’. Lady Dufferin had done her best to persuade Cooch Behar’s wife to keep to her native clothes, ‘in which she looks charming’, and Dufferin suggested that the Queen should also send her a message to enforce this.

Some like Holkar, the Maharajah of Indore, came with health warnings – ‘He is a burly, ill-mannered, vulgar Mahratta’ – but even he had his advantages. ‘He will take a large following with him, whose gorgeous dresses will help to enliven the Jubilee show,’ commented Dufferin.

The lists were finalised over a period of four months. Dufferin sent detailed instructions as to how the Queen should receive them, what occasions they should be invited to, the ranking and order of precedence and how the Secretary of State should entertain them. The Princes were all paying for their own travel, so would need to be given a good time in London. The English officers accompanying them would handle the sightseeing, the Queen could perhaps invite them to an Indian-style Durbar and the Secretary of State to a reception. They should all be invited to Buckingham Palace and given seats at Westminster Abbey. Protocol and formalities were a vexing question: ‘Whether or not the Princes should be invited to attend a levee held by the Queen in person, where they will have to kneel and kiss her Majesty’s hand, is rather a ticklish question,’ noted Dufferin.

Lord Cross issued instructions from London: ‘The Queen wishes them [the Princes] all to appear in Native costume.’
2
European costume would be distasteful.

These Jubilee celebrations would set the precedent for subsequent major Royal events – the Diamond Jubilee, the Coronation Durbar of King Edward VII and the Delhi Durbar of 1911. Ever since the Mutiny of 1857, the British believed in nurturing the princely states that had remained loyal to the Crown. In the post-Mutiny administrative reorganisation, the eleven provinces that had been dominated by the East India Company passed directly under Crown rule, while the rest of the princely or native states were ruled by their own Maharajahs or nawabs in alliance with the British government. These had remained largely autonomous, issuing their own currency and Royal crests, although their administration was subjected to close scrutiny. The princely states were arranged in a pecking order corresponding to their land and influence and some Maharajahs were allowed gun salutes. In the premier league were the states of Hyderabad, Mysore, Baroda, Gwalior and Kashmir – all known for their loyalty to the British Crown – with twenty-one gun salutes; Cooch Behar was allowed thirteen.

On board the
Cathay
, Karim was feeling seasick. It was the first time he had stepped on something so magnificent. ‘It was like a moving palace with splendidly furnished rooms,’ he wrote in his Journal. The first night at sea had passed well, but the tossing waves took their toll on him by morning. Tyler advised him to spend as much time on deck but Karim found this to be even worse than the cabin. Finally he took some medicines, noticing that the Europeans preferred to take spirits to tide over the seasickness. However, by the time the ship reached Aden, Karim was sufficiently recovered to step on deck. Tyler went to see the town but Karim stayed on board watching the young Arab boys rowing around the ship in their canoes, diving for money thrown by the European ladies. The ladies, he noticed, liked buying ostrich feathers (called the Shutarmurgh in Persian). After a few hours in Aden, the steamer sailed up the Red Sea to Suez where Karim was struck by the arrangement of the vessels going through the canals. He marvelled as the steamer entered the blue
waters of the Mediterranean sea and they reached the island of Malta, where he disembarked with Tyler.

In Malta, Tyler took them to see an ancient church, but when the attendant there asked them to remove their turbans, the Indians resisted and chose not to enter the church. ‘We consider our headdress the most honoured of all our habitments, and go with it on to any place we venerate,’ wrote Karim. ‘Therefore we could not think of desecrating the sacred building by entering bareheaded.’ From Malta they sailed to Gibraltar where they were joined on board by Prince Albert Victor, before proceeding on the last leg of the journey to England. Karim was impressed by how downright the Prince was.

On arrival in London, the Indians were taken by Tyler to the Victoria Hotel, where Karim noted that the rooms were fine. ‘The bustle and stir caused by the Jubilee visitors from all ranks and nations beats anything I had ever dreamed of before,’ he wrote. However, there was one problem in London faced by the Indians, namely the food:

We suffered much inconveniences in regard to our food, although the troubles of Mohammedans in respect were little compared to the sufferings of the poor Hindoos, whose religion enjoins performing of many stringent rites in connection with the preparation and partaking of their food. For instance an orthodox Hindoo must have a bath before every meal to which he has to sit down barebodied, rather an inconvenient thing to do in a cold country like England.

The Queen was still at Balmoral at this time and Karim had no idea when she would come down to London for the festivities. During the twelve days in London, Dr Tyler took them to Madame Tussauds and London Zoo. Karim found the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds depressing as it showed ‘sin and misery in their various forms’.

The first of the Royal guests to arrive for the Jubilee were the highly recommended Maharajah and Maharani of Cooch Behar, one of the most westernised of Indian princely families. Cooch Behar was a tiny principality set in the north-eastern hills of
Bengal, an idyllic paradise of tea plantations and game-rich forests full of rhinoceroses and tigers. The Maharajah, Nripendra Narayan, a dashing twenty-five-year-old, was a keen huntsman who had been educated in the elite Presidency College in Calcutta and tutored by English teachers. His wife, the beautiful twenty-two-year-old Sunity Devi, was the first Indian Maharani to visit the English Court. They travelled with their three children, Sunity’s two brothers, an English secretary and an entourage of servants, and received a rousing welcome. The press clamoured to see Sunity when she rode in Hyde Park, reporting every detail of her clothes, accessories and lifestyle as she socialised with Alexandra, the Princess of Wales and Princess May, later to become Queen Mary.

Nripendra Narayan wore silk embroidered Indian tunics with ornamented turbans and was never without his strings of pearls and ruby and diamond encrusted rings. Sunity Devi’s gowns were fashioned by top Paris couturiers combining Eastern and Western styles and she wore saris with European-style blouses and petticoats. The Cooch Behar jewels sparkled around her neck and on her fingers. The Maharani was the daughter of the nineteenth-century Bengali reformist Keshub Chander Sen, who had established the Brahmo Samaj, a liberal branch of Hinduism that believed in women’s emancipation. Sen had been one of the first Hindus to cross the seas in 1870, had preached at the Unitarian Church in Bristol and had been invited to lunch with Queen Victoria at Osborne, where he was served a specially prepared vegetarian meal. Sunity had been brought up in a liberal tradition and was the embodiment of the accomplished Victorian woman: well-educated, proficient in embroidery, music and art. She was later to become the first Indian woman to write in English when her memoir,
Autobiography of an Indian Princess
, was published in London in 1921. Her husband Nripendra had also written in English and his
Thirty Seven Years of Big Game
was published in 1909.

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