Authors: Shrabani Basu
While sending the letters to Knollys, Minto added a note: ‘I hope the King will allow the letters the widow wishes to keep to be returned to her. It seems natural that she should like to have them and their return to her would be much appreciated and would do good. I sent you all these details to avoid a long explanation to the King but will write to His Majesty to say I have sent the letters to you.’
It was clear that the persecution of the Munshi’s family after his death had not gone down well with the representatives of
the Crown in India. The Munshi was perceived as an important man in Agra and his closeness to the Queen was legendary. The Viceroy did not want to ruffle unnecessary feathers and escalate a situation where the King’s actions would be seen as unfair and heavy handed. India was already becoming a political tinder-box and the Viceroy was anxious to send the right messages. He wrote a separate letter to King Edward VII saying he would be glad to know that ‘the descendants of the late Munshi Abdul Karim have given up some further letters from Queen Victoria’.
The Viceroy informed the King that he believed these were all that existed and the King could now be assured that there were no more. Expressing his wish that the widow of the Munshi be allowed to keep a few souvenirs, he said: ‘The widow of the late Munshi is very anxious that some of the latter, which are of little importance except to herself should be returned to her for her lifetime and the Viceroy is sure that if such a gracious act is possible, it would be very gratefully appreciated.’
In a veiled warning to the King, the Viceroy updated him on the political situation in India, pressing home the point that it would be unwise to upset the community at this present junction. He told the King that though his political position in India had improved, the plots of agitators were certainly still smouldering. Minto expressed the hope that things would continue to improve.
The King realised the Viceroy’s sensitive position and agreed to return the four letters mentioned by Lord Minto to the Munshi’s widow. However, he wanted the government in India to take steps ‘to ensure their being returned to the King in the event of her death’.
Edward VII retained the remaining four letters, in all probability tossing them into the crackling fire at Buckingham Palace.
After much deliberation, the four letters that the King conceded to return were sent back from London to Agra and restored to the Munshi’s wife. Nor was this a simple procedure. They were handed over only after the Munshi’s brother, Abdul Aziz Tehsildar, travelled personally to Agra on leave and handed an agreement in writing to the Commissioner of Agra, agreeing to ‘return them to His Majesty the King on her death through the Collector of Agra’. The letter was signed in triplicate by him, the Munshi’s widow and his nephew, Abdul Rashid Tahsildar, and handed to the Collector of Agra.
The details of the agreement were sent to Hewitt on 23 November by the Commissioner. Hewitt conveyed them to Lord Minto, who responded wearily from the Viceroy’s Camp in Bangalore: ‘Many thanks for copy of the Commissioner of Agra’s letter … I suppose the agreement will be filed in the Commissioner’s office or in your own – otherwise its existence might be lost sight of as years go on. Believe me, yours very truly, Minto.’
Nearly seven months had passed since the death of the Munshi.
With the last batch of Queen Victoria’s letters divided between Agra and Windsor, the story of the Queen and her Munshi was finally confined to bureaucratic files. It is not known whether the letters held by the Munshi’s widow were ever returned to Windsor after her death. King Edward was to die a few months later, on 6 May 1910. Few after him were interested in pursuing the letters. George V would rule a world torn apart by revolution and war.
Bigger events were overtaking British rule in India. A tide of political unrest was sweeping the sub-continent and the first stirrings of the nationalist struggle were beginning to rattle the Imperial administration. Not since the Mutiny of 1857 had the powers-that-be in Westminster witnessed the wave of feelings against the British government and the growing demands for independence. The cries of ‘
’ (Bow to the Mother) were beginning to fill the air again and Bengal was gripped by revolutionary zeal. Women handed in their jewellery to help fund the revolutionaries, bonfires of British goods were organised, and the air was heavy with plots, secret meetings and assassination attempts. From jute mill workers to farmhands, students to the landed aristocracy, all of Bengal was seething with nationalistic fervour following the partition of the state.
Far away in London, on 1 July 1909, a twenty-two-year-old Indian engineering student, Madan Lal Dhingra, while attending the annual function of the Indian National Association, pumped five bullets into Sir Curzon Wyllie, Political Aide-de-Camp to the Secretary of State for India, Lord Morley, as he entered the hall of the Imperial Institute. It was just over a decade ago that the foundation stone of the Institute had been laid by Queen Victoria in far happier circumstances. Dhingra was arrested
immediately and refused to have a defence counsel, saying the courts in Britain had no right to try him. It took the judge at the Old Bailey only twenty minutes to sentence him. On 17 August 1909 he was hanged in Pentonville Prison.
Dhingra was defiant in death. ‘I believe that a nation held down by foreign bayonets is in a perpetual state of war … the only lesson required in India at present is to learn how to die,’ he declared before he was hanged. He showed no remorse or fear and said he believed that the English would have done the same had the Germans been occupying their land. Dhingra became the first Indian nationalist to become a martyr on British soil, inspiring later revolutionaries like Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh, all of whom went to their deaths fighting for freedom.
Later that year, Minto and his wife were themselves to survive an assassination attempt while on a visit to Ahmedabad in western India. Two bombs were thrown at the carriage in which they were driving. The explosives did not go off, but they succeeded in injuring a water-carrier who picked them up.
By 1911 all of Delhi was transformed for the Durbar of George V, which saw the British government make an important announcement. The capital of the government would be moved from Calcutta to Delhi. It was clear that the political climate in Bengal had become much too hot. The new Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, successor to Lord Minto, entered Delhi on an elephant in 1912 to inaugurate the construction of the new city, but was met with a daring bomb attack. He survived, but only just. Hardinge was carried away on a stretcher as the elephant and mahout collapsed in a sea of white dust.
It was the time of assassination attempts around the world. Two years later the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo would see the outbreak of the First World War. Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, who had knelt together at her deathbed, were now at war, drawing the whole world into a conflict which was to leave millions dead. One million Indian soldiers were recruited and sent to fight on the front line, dying in trenches in far-off lands. The smell of gunfire, the sight of the injured and the dead were to become the signs of the day.
Barely a year later, in January 1915, an astute young lawyer stepped off a boat from South Africa at the Bombay docks.
His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A new chapter in Indian history was about to be written. It was a time far removed from the sunny days spent in marquees in the gardens at Frogmore and Osborne, when an elderly English Queen sat learning Hindustani from a young Indian, who told her tales of his homeland and won her heart.
The Regional Archives of Agra – a small house located in a sleepy residential area – had a forgotten air about it. ‘We only open it if someone needs a document,’ apologised the junior official, who had driven up in a scooter from another building to let us in. It was clear that he did not need to do this too often.
The register indicated that the last person had visited over a month back. After handing me a handwritten catalogue, the official – clearly at a loose end – said he was going for some tea. Would I like some? I certainly would. Searching for the Munshi’s records in this neglected place seemed like a hopeless task. The room smelt of open drains. A sleepy dog lay on the verandah, surveying me through a half-closed eye. The mosquitoes under the table had already started making a meal of my legs. I thought longingly of the cosy surrounds of the Round Tower in Windsor where the other half of the Munshi’s records lay. At the Queen’s Royal residence, they rang a bell at eleven and served us tea and biscuits. The contrast could not have been more obvious.
Miraculously, the cataloguing actually worked. In the languid surrounds of the room, in steel almirahs with rusty handles were filed records of the Munshi’s life in Agra: letters, land documents and detailed arrangements for the Viceroy’s Durbar. Before long, I had forgotten about the mosquito bites and was staring at a crumbling parchment map spread across the table. It was a map drawn by an official in the Collector’s Office in Agra in 1896, showing the area of land occupied by the Munshi. A black border had been marked around the plots numbered 11–125. These were already owned by the Munshi and gifted to him by the Queen. Marked in red was the huge chunk of government land adjacent to it, which the Munshi wanted to buy. It numbered up to plot 314 and covered an area of 141 acres. There was a road running through it, with several trees including
, mango and
. There was farmland and fallow land. The Munshi had clearly acquired a giant stretch of land, shaped amazingly like the map
of the United States, in the heart of Agra. On plots numbered 177–187 he had built his dream house, Karim Lodge.
We seemed to have been in the car for nearly an hour, driving through what was once the Munshi’s estate, passing large gated houses covered with bougainvilleas, jasmine and fragrant flowering plants. Palm trees and brightly painted flower pots lined the streets. Occasionally, one got a glimpse of manicured lawns. The rich and prosperous of Agra had built their houses here now. ‘All this belonged to Abdul Karim,’ said my guide from the local Agra estate agents. ‘It is now a whole area in Agra.’ Finally, he pulled up outside what looked like the remnants of an old stone wall and a gate with a carved medieval arch. On it was stuck an announcement by the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a political party. Next to the gate were rows of chemists’ shops, the makeshift shacks running for nearly a mile along the wall that had once cordoned off Karim’s property.
All that remained of the original Karim Lodge was the brick wall, the arches and the living room with its high ceiling. The back of the house had been modernised and turned into a nursing home and medical practice. The front of the house had been further divided into two residential houses. Prakash Hingorani, the present owner of the original house, knew only a few sketchy details about Abdul Karim. He showed me a letter from Karim written on Windsor notepaper. It gave the date and time of his arrival by the mail train to Agra. Hingorani had laminated the yellowing page and kept it as a souvenir. It was one of the things he had found lying among the papers in the house.