Read Victoria & Abdul Online

Authors: Shrabani Basu

Victoria & Abdul (9 page)

The Queen found Holkar ‘beautifully dressed and handsome’.
He was followed by the young Rao of Cutch, who entered with his brother. The Queen thought ‘he and his Brother were like a dream’ and she appreciated the ‘wonderful jewels’ that he wore. The Maharajah presented the Queen with an address in a golden
case and said a few appropriate words ‘so nicely and in such good English’ that the Queen was enchanted. He also presented the Queen with some beautiful silver ornaments for the table. The Queen gave him an enamel portrait of herself and invested him with the Grand Cross of the Indian Empire. Cutch was a seventeen gun salute state.

The Queen was enjoying her audience with the Princes. She noted their clothes and jewellery with fascination and was delighted with their gifts. The Princes called on her in order of rank. Next to enter the Green Drawing Room were the Queen’s personal favourites, the Maharajah and Maharani of Cooch Behar, Nripendra and Sunity. Nripendra wore his princely clothes, jewellery and turban, and Sunity wore a heavy white and gold brocade gown beneath a crepe de Chine sari and carried a pair of kid gloves. She curtsied to the Queen and gave her a carved ruby pendant set with fine large diamonds. Nripendra gave her an inlaid ivory writing and work box in blue.
The Queen gave Sunity a miniature of herself and then kissed her on the cheek. The newspapers, excited by the presence of the young Maharani, noted that she was the only one the Queen kissed that day and that the ‘Indian Princess received more attention than any of the others’.

Sunity was delighted with the publicity but confessed she had been at a loss of how to respond to the Queen. She had been told that she need not kiss the Queen when she met her, since she had already been received privately. So when the elderly Queen tried to kiss her, Sunity initially moved away. A puzzled Victoria, who nevertheless planted her kiss on Sunity’s cheek, wondered later to the Princess of Wales: ‘Why would not the Maharani kiss me?’

The presentation of the Indian Princes carried on smoothly without any other hiccups. The Thakores of Morvi, Limri and Gondal presented themselves to the Queen, who knighted the Thakore of Morvi and received presents from the last two. Then, with some help from Prince Arthur, her son and the Duke of Connaught, the Queen placed the Imperial Cross of the Order of the Indian Empire round the necks of the Thakores of Limri and Gondal. The Thakores were from an eleven gun salute state. The Queen also received deputations from the Nizam of Hyderabad, and other native Princes, who had sent her their presents; and deputations from the Municipalities and Corporation of Calcutta and Bombay.

The Durbar ended with a dramatic flourish. Sir Pertab Singh stepped forward and placed his sword at the Queen’s feet and offered her a lovely pearl ornament which he had taken from his turban, saying everything he possessed was at the Queen’s service.

The Queen was then asked to go to the quadrangle for another surprise. The newly knighted Thakore of Morvi came riding up on a splendidly caparisoned young horse that was completely covered with a heavy ornamental coat of mail, with tassels hanging down and an amulet on one leg. The horse was of the rare Chaitana breed and recognised instantly by the Queen. The Chaitana was a mix breed between the Rajpipla and Kathiawar horses and bred specially for playing polo. It was led prancing into the yard by two Indians. The Thakore alighted and begged the Queen to accept the horse as a present from him, which she did, thanking him for it. The Queen returned indoors, pleased with the events of the day and the display of gratitude and loyalty she had just witnessed. Karim, who was seeing a parade of Indian Royalty at such close quarters for the first time, watched in wonder. Even Buksh, the seasoned servant who had served under the Rana of Dholpore, was impressed by the grandeur of it.

The Queen and her guests were all enjoying the hot Indian summer. The Queen’s list of Jubilee engagements was long, but she took it all in her stride. At sixty-eight she displayed great energy for her constant commutes between Windsor and Buckingham Palace. She would be in London for the day and return by evening to Windsor. Over the next few days she presented silver medals to the Indian Escort and laid the foundation stone of the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, which would house the exhibits of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition.

Watched by crowds of thousands and her loyal Indian Princes, she called for the welding of ‘India and the Mother Country into one harmonious and united community’. The Princes – many of whom had donated to the building of the Institute – were pleased by this. The Imperial Institute would now house all the works of the Indian sculptors and artists that the Queen had so admired when they had come to England for the exhibition. She had had portraits of the artisans painted by Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda and purchased a large vase from Bakshi Ram, the 102-year-old potter from Agra. She had admired the carpets from Agra and had been pleased to learn that it was Karim who had
helped Tyler to bring the artisans to England. She looked forward to learning more about India from the sombre-looking youth.

Karim and Buksh were soon to discover the hierarchies, rivalries and the prejudices of the Court. The routine in the Royal Court was more or less the same every year. It usually sat in three places –Windsor, Osborne and Balmoral. The Queen rarely stayed in Buckingham Palace, never really liking the Palace that had been bought by her grandfather, George III. She only visited it on special occasions, like Jubilee celebrations, weddings or to host receptions for the presentation of debutantes. The Queen liked travelling by train and journeys to Windsor, Balmoral and the Isle of Wight were always made in the luxury of the Royal train.

Windsor was the most popular residence and the senior officials lived in various towers in the castle so they could be with their families. Quick access to London also made it an attractive place for the government.

Osborne House on the Isle of Wight was one of the Queen’s favourites. The Queen had enjoyed her days with Prince Albert in Osborne and the house had been an ideal family home for the young Royals. The third residence was Balmoral in Scotland, a place disliked intensely by her Household and the government as it was 600 miles from London. Ministers calling on the Queen had to make the long journey to the Highlands and they did not enjoy it. At Balmoral the Queen had only a small Household, just enough for the day-to-day running. The equerry-in-waiting did the job of the Master of the Household.

The Royal Court moved in the late summer to Balmoral and usually returned to Windsor by September. The Court shifted again to Osborne for the winter and Christmas was nearly always spent in Osborne. By February, the Royal entourage returned to Windsor and the Queen left on a European tour around April or May.

The Queen’s routine was more or less the same in all three of her residences. Breakfast was at 10 a.m. followed by some time spent writing letters and going through her boxes. Lunch was at 2 p.m. Afternoon tea was at 4 p.m. followed by a ride in the pony chair. Dinner was at 9 p.m. When out in the pony chair, she would be accompanied by a servant and a lady-in-waiting. The rest of the Household were not to be in the grounds when she
was out. Once she had left, they could go out. The Queen always dined with some members of her Household and would summon those she wanted to see each day. They were informed of this by late afternoon by a footman. If they were to have dinner with the Queen, the men were expected to wear knee breeches and stockings, which they hated. Those not having dinner with the Queen could have dinner separately and enjoy a more informal surrounding. After dinner, the Queen remained in the Drawing Room till about eleven. Here the Household and guests usually played a game of whist or cards. Once the Queen left for the night, the guests could retire to the Billiard Room where they were allowed to smoke. The Queen abhorred smoking and every effort was made to ensure that the whiff of tobacco did not reach the Royal nostrils.

The maids of honour worked for four months at a stretch with the Queen and then went on leave. Ponsonby and Reid accompanied her at most times and her new Indian servants were expected to do the same.

In the summer the Queen liked nothing more than breakfasting outdoors under the trees. Since their arrival, Karim and Buksh were always by her side. She usually enjoyed a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast and marmalade with her handsomely liveried Indians waiting on her. As she ate from her golden egg cup with her golden spoon, and Karim served her on a golden plate, everything seemed perfect. The garden and pond looked tranquil and she could hear the rustling of the breeze in the oak trees. After breakfast she would always spend some time reading and writing before starting the day’s hectic events. The Jubilee mail was still pouring in. As the Queen sat in her tent, Karim would stand at a respectful distance by her side gently helping her along with her boxes, leaning forward only to blot the Queen’s signature with a pink blotting paper. The Queen liked his serious countenance and found him ‘extremely helpful’.

From Windsor, the Royal Household moved to Osborne in the Isle of Wight as part of the continuing Jubilee tour. The Queen loved Osborne as it was here that she had always enjoyed informal days with her children and grandchildren. She was in a particularly good humour now as she made the ferry crossing sitting on the deck of the
, her Indian servants by her side. As her carriage passed by the cheering crowds near the pier, the
Queen’s face suddenly lit up with a rare smile. It was a novelty for those who saw it, as it wasn’t the stern image usually associated with Queen Victoria.

In the relaxed atmosphere of Osborne, just weeks since he had kissed Queen Victoria’s feet, the young Karim decided to surprise her. One day he came to the kitchen in Osborne House with the spice box that he had carried from India. He was going to cook a curry for the Queen. To the amazement of the cooks in the Royal kitchen, Karim was soon chopping, churning and grinding the
. The aroma of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin and nutmeg wafted through the room. Before long, Karim had prepared a fine Indian meal: chicken curry,
and a fragrant
. More was to follow. Karim was soon stirring up exotic
dum pukht
, dishes from the Mughal kitchens. Kormas simmered in the cast iron pots and ground almonds and cream laced the rich curries. For the first time in her life, Queen Victoria was introduced to the taste and smell of India. She described it as ‘excellent’ and ordered the curries to be made regularly.

The Queen would serve curries to the visiting Indian Princes and nobility who continued to call. On 28 July she received the Kunwar Hurwan Singh Ahluwalia and his wife in Osborne. The Queen noted that the wife was ‘in her native dress’ and that they were both Christians.
She gave them the gold Jubilee medal. The Indian Princes usually performed an elaborate ceremony before the Queen. The Maharajah of Bharatpore and his delegation laid their swords at the Queen’s feet and took out a handkerchief containing money which they dropped on the ground. Then they held their swords crossways in both hands for the Queen to touch. Served by Buksh and Karim, the Queen had tea with her visitors in the grounds of Osborne under the cedar tree.

The Indians had mastered the art of waiting at table. They would always serve the sweets and chocolates at the end of the meal and had learned quickly the personal favourites of the members of the Royal family and the Household. They would move in a ‘cat-like manner, never forgetting which particular kind of chocolate or biscuit each guest preferred, so twisting the dish in order that it could be taken with apparent ease’, noted Marie Mallet, maid of honour to the Queen. The Queen herself had a healthy appetite for one her age and thoroughly enjoyed her meals.

The Indian servants now occupied her full time. She fussed about their clothes, their duties and wanted to make sure they were comfortable. Tutors were engaged to teach them English and their wives were invited to join them. Always enthusiastic about India and wanting to learn more about the country she ruled from a distance of over 4,000 miles, the Queen chose Karim to be her link with the exotic land. The ageing Queen wanted to learn Hindustani and asked Karim to teach her.

The youth from Agra was undaunted at this new job. He proved a serious teacher and a hard taskmaster. Karim ordered special gold-lined journals from the Royal stationers and sat with the Queen every evening, filling these up. He began by teaching her a few everyday words. A phrase book was devised with simple words written in Hindustani in the roman script and their meanings in English. The small red and gold pocket-sized phrase book became the Queen’s constant companion. Soon the lessons progressed further. Karim would write a line in Urdu, followed by a line in English and then a line of Urdu in roman script. The Queen would copy these out.

Barely a few weeks after their arrival, an excited Queen noted in her Journal: ‘Am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is great interest to me for both the language and the people. I have naturally never come into real contact with before.’
Sir Henry Ponsonby was not spared the Queen’s newfound enthusiasm and was handed a phrase book of common Hindustani words by the Queen. He wrote with dry humour to his wife, ‘She has given me a Hindi vocabulary to study’.

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