Shrabani Basu’s book “Victoria and Abdul” is meant to be the story of the unexpected friendship between the Queen Victoria of England and Abdul Karim, a witty Indian commoner, who was appointed the esteemed task of presenting to the Queen a ceremonial Indian coin for her jubilee.
However, Basu’s book — a piece of fiction based on factual details that Basu had supposedly meticulously extracted from Karim’s journals — fails to convey Queen Victoria and Karim’s unexpected bond as personal and genuine.
Her prose is riddled with factual contradictions, which is further exacerbated by an excruciatingly dry writing style. Once upon a time, I would have generously blamed a writer’s dullness on the perspective of third person. But after reading works like “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace, who is able to pull us into the speaker’s irrevocably tumultuous world by providing a vivid, emotionally destructive account through the dreaded third person, I know it is possible.
The way in which Basu told their tale reminded me all too much of a Shakespearean show — a rapid, silent performance of a sequence of events with the intention to speed past the insignificant and instead focus on the imperative. Most of the book is void of any dialogue, internal thought, or reflective descriptions that could have alluded to Queen Victoria or Abdul’s interior states.
Granted, this is difficult since these individuals are not fictional. However, since Basu strongly proclaims the deep bond that grounds their relationship without any implicit demonstration within the story, her claims falter.
Focusing on a story like “Victoria and Abdul,” which is rooted in facts, is a difficult task when the story depicts a subjective topic: a relationship. A friendship, which is chiefly rooted in a psychological and emotional foundation, requires the author to delve into both the factual and emotional, rather than just one, while directly claiming the other without any supporting evidence.
Basu misses the fundamental literary principle of “Show, don’t tell” by focusing on content and neglecting the importance of a style that, when nurtured, truly shapes a piece. It’s true that every author, even the most dry, maintains a style — their style is the experience they exude from their voice. However, her voice is not fully conveyed. At least, not enough to believe the story she tells.
Basu’s failure to depict even a single emotional experience makes us question Victoria and Abdul’s friendship and its genuineness, given the sociopolitical circumstances in which it was formed. It is possible their friendship could have been honest, despite high tensions during that time.
However, there are also factual claims that rebuke their authentic bond. If Basu denies us the right to experience the story, we at least need to feel comforted by the supporting evidence. There are details Basu includes that seem to refute their bond. One such case is when Abdul wants to return to India, while Queen Victoria is eager to maintain his presence in her council.
Another notion that makes Basu’s claim dubious is her notion that Queen Victoria enjoyed Abdul’s company because of the services and knowledge he brought to her, such as learning Urdu, rather than his idiosyncratic character. It frequently appears that Basu’s portrayal of Queen Victoria is of someone who is more motivated out of self-interest in keeping Abdul around, rather than a genuine connection with Abdul.
With “Victoria and Abdul” being a fictional piece based on real life events, it is indubitably difficult to know the essence of their relationship. We, as readers, can merely make assessments according to the extracted anecdotal accounts we have from Karim’s journals and the historical knowledge aligning with the tale.
But the foundation of any story is that: Tone, style and content should work together in a meaningful way, and if there are contradictions, they should be in the form of consequential contrasts that still work toward a common goal. Unfortunately, Basu’s book seems to fail to achieve this outcome.