Read Victoria & Abdul Online

Authors: Shrabani Basu

Victoria & Abdul (8 page)

By late evening, the Queen was ‘half dead with fatigue’, though she managed to see some of the illuminations. Alone in her room that night, as she heard the crowds passing the Palace singing
God Save the Queen
and
Rule Britannia
, the Queen wrote in her Journal: ‘This never-to-be forgotten day will always leave the most gratifying and heart-stirring memories behind.’
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A delighted Lord Cross telegraphed Dufferin in India: ‘Our great day of Jubilee is over, well over. We cannot pretend to Eastern magnificence, but it was magnificent.’
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The next day the Queen met 30,000 poor schoolchildren at Hyde Park, who had been scrubbed for the occasion and given a meat pie, a piece of cake and an orange. They sang
God Save the Queen
‘somewhat out of tune’ and were each given an earthenware pot decorated with the Queen’s portrait. A little girl gave Victoria a beautiful bouquet, on the ribbon of which was embroidered: ‘God bless our Queen, not Queen alone, but Mother, Queen and Friend.’ The Queen was genuinely moved by it.

After that it was a train from Paddington to Slough and a drive through more cheering crowds, past balconies and windows packed with people and splendid decorations with Chinese lanterns, ‘the ringing of bells and bands playing’ to Castle Hill, where a statue of the Queen was unveiled, and finally to ‘good old Windsor’ for the night. The Indian Princes took their positions on the balcony of the White Hart Hotel opposite the castle watching the ceremonies from a vantage point,
The Times
reporting that ‘their rich uniforms and picturesque appearance excited a great deal of interest as they gazed curiously upon the crowds below and watched the busy traffic on the hill’. In the evening they watched the illuminated Castle and the night procession by Eton boys. That night the Queen wrote in her Journal: ‘These two days will ever remain indelibly impressed on my mind, with great gratitude, to that all merciful providence, who had protected me so long, and to my devoted and loyal people. But how painfully do I miss the dear ones I have lost.’
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The Queen had gone through a rollercoaster of emotions over the last two days. As her family and her guests had enjoyed the
dancing and the partying, she had felt deeply lonely without Albert. She missed someone to talk to and gossip with about the Jubilee events. The warmth of her people had cheered her, but they had gone home to their loved ones and she had returned alone to her Castle, her maids and Household. She missed her husband and her Highland servant, John Brown; both men the Queen had loved and buried.

‘A fine morning with a fresh air,’ noted the Queen, as she looked out of her bedroom window at Windsor Castle the next day, but she was feeling ‘very tired’.
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It was the third day of her Golden Jubilee celebrations and the monarch knew she faced another day of buntings and presentations. The Queen sat lost in thought as she was dressed by her maids. She had chosen to wear widow’s black ever since the death of Prince Albert in 1861. At last, she adjusted her cap and ascended into her carriage for the short drive to Frogmore with her daughter Beatrice. As they rode down the rolling green of the Long Walk in Windsor Park, past the rows of chestnut trees, the Queen thought of the excitement of the past two days and the fireworks of the night before. Everything now seemed so still. At Frogmore House her eldest daughter Victoria and her grand daughter Vicky were already there waiting for her; and so was a special gift from India.

Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh – the Queen’s Jubilee presents from India – had arrived early to wait at table. The breakfast room at Frogmore, a somber place at most times, seemed to come alive with the new arrivals. Buksh’s practised elegance matched Karim’s naturally regal presence. Their clothes made them look almost princely. The Queen was delighted. Dressed in striking scarlet tunics with white turbans, they approached her reverentially. The Queen noted Mohammed Buksh’s appearance, ‘very dark with a very smiling expression’. She described the much younger Abdul Karim as ‘much lighter, tall and with a fine serious countenance’. Both servants approached her slowly, their eyes lowered to gaze at the ground as they had been instructed to do. Then, with a deep bow, Karim and Buksh bent down to kiss the Queen’s feet. As he rose, young Karim’s dark eyes fleetingly met the Queen’s gaze. Suddenly Victoria no longer felt as tired.

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A
N
I
NDIAN
D
URBAR

T
he arrival of the Indians had already caused a flutter in the Royal Household. Sir Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s private secretary, sat in his study writing a note about them. It wasn’t going to be easy taking care of them, he thought. Their rules had to be clearly defined. The elderly Ponsonby recorded: ‘Mohammed Buxsh and Abdul Kareem are taken in to the Queen’s service as personal Indian servants under the order of Hugh Brown and of Hyem. They received £60 a year which I presume the Privy Purse must pay them.’
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The Indians were to be
khidmatgars
, or table hands, and General Thomas Dennehy, who had accompanied them from India (and thankfully spoke the language), would be in charge of them. Ponsonby remembered another crucial point and pencilled a note to the Yeoman of the Cellar: ‘We are anxious (and H. M. approves) to request all persons in Household not to offer spirits to the two Indians.’
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As Muslims, their religion forbade them to drink and they could not be expected to participate in any social drinking with the other servants. Karim and Buksh would also be allowed to prepare and cook their own food as their religion demanded. Ponsonby hoped it would not get any more complicated.

Ponsonby was the senior-most member of the Royal Household, the bewildering pecking order of which Karim and Buksh would soon learn. A tall man in his sixties, with a neatly clipped beard and a slightly untidy manner of dressing, Ponsonby was well liked and trusted by the Queen. He was witty, patient, ready to listen to even the most trying and boring of people and quick at getting to the root of a problem and solving
it. ‘It becomes wearisome. But one must listen,’
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he once said. He was devoted to his wife, Mary Ponsonby, a highly lettered woman with radical views who wrote articles in the
Pall Mall Gazette.
Ponsonby understood the Queen and she understood him. His duties as private secretary not only included passing on all her correspondence to her after going through it himself, and laboriously reading her handwritten replies, but also soothing the ruffled feathers of members of the Household who may be complaining about the Queen or a colleague. It was Ponsonby who was on the front line facing the Queen when a crisis erupted in the Household and he, more than any other, knew how to deal with her demands.

Sir James Reid, the Queen’s personal physician, was an Aberdeen Scot who did not believe in mincing his words and freely spoke his mind. Reid was to play an important role as the main intermediary between the Household and the Queen over the affairs of the Munshi in later years. As the Queen grew older, she relied on Reid even more and he had to deal with matters that went far beyond his call of duty. ‘Ask Sir James’, was her usual answer to members of her Household when they came to her with problems and queries. She wrote to him daily describing her physical condition, the movement of her bowels and her digestion. He constantly despaired of the Queen’s ability to eat far too voraciously for one her age, but could do little to stop her.

The women of the Household consisted of the Queen’s private secretary and woman of the bedchamber, Harriet Phipps; the ladies-in-waiting, Minnie Cochrane and Lady Jane Churchill; and the maids of honour, Marie Mallet and Ethel Cadogan. The maids of honour were in charge of the mistress of the robes. It was a formidable line-up of men and women with whom the Indians would have to deal with.

The Queen was delighted with her Indian servants. Less than a week after they had arrived, she noted: ‘The Indians always

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wait now and do so, so well and quietly. Karim and Buksh had immediately taken to their duties and had cleared the first hurdle.

Her Indian guests were equally special to her. At a Jubilee garden party in Buckingham Palace, the Queen ordered that her Indian Escorts be asked to stand in a ring around the Royal Tent. This they did looking very impressive and were appreciated by Queen Marie of Belgium and other European Princes who
floated past them to join the Queen for tea. The bright Indian saris and turbans worn by the Indians stood out among the sea of guests enjoying the sandwiches, cakes, jellies and bowls of strawberries and cream in the lawns of the Palace. The Queen was pleased at the ambience. The Princes did not disappoint. They wore their finest jewels, held forth on stories of Royal hunts, had the English ladies hanging on their every word and the press corps clicking wildly at them.

‘English society seems disposed to put everything Indian upon a pedestal, and young ladies appear ready enough to fall in love with Indians at home,’ Lord Dufferin wrote to Lord Cross. The Indians were clearly working their magic.

There was no respite from the Jubilee celebrations. The day after the garden party, Karim and Buksh were up at dawn again. Windsor Castle was preparing to host its first ever Indian Durbar. The excitement was palpable, the Queen anxious to get everything right for her foreign visitors. The Green Drawing Room in Windsor was set up for the occasion with the great officers of state, gold stick and cross, standing behind the Queen. The Indian Escort stood opposite forming an imposing background and looking ‘splendid’, according to the Queen. Sir Pertab Singh, ADC to the Crown Prince and brother of the Maharajah of Jaipur, stood behind the Queen with the great officers as she waited to receive the Princes.

The first to enter was Shivaji Rao Holkar, the Maharajah of Indore, who offered his presents to the Queen. She gave him an enamel portrait of herself and invested him with the Grand Cross of the Star of India, knighting him. Holkar, who was dressed in a long Indian tunic worn over c
huridars
, or tight trousers, had great difficulty in kneeling down before the Queen. The Holkars, Maratha rulers of a proud state, had been reduced in size since 1818 after their defeat against the British in the third Anglo-Maratha War. Nevertheless, the state enjoyed a nineteen gun salute.
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