The author of three well-received books describes how she discovered the ‘lost’ diaries of Queen Victoria’s Hindustani tutor and her work on a memorial project for an Indian princess who spied for the British during World War II.
Since UK-based Shrabani Basu is briefly in India to promote a new edition of her first book Curry, The Story of Britain’s Favourite Dish, among other things, I stipulate that she must choose a place where we can eat curry of some kind. Khan Market’s Side Wok sort of meets those specs with its south-east Asian cuisine, writes Kanika Datta.
Basu is familiar with the menu — despite being London-based, she describes herself in Bengali as Dilli’r goonda — and recommends crispy fish “in a piquant sauce” as a starter and sliced pork in black bean sauce with jasmine rice for the main course. She’s off to a family lunch after this and picks at the food to humour me, so I pretty much have all of this to myself.
At one level, I could have been lunching with a colleague, since the comfortably chatty Basu is a journalist by profession. She is the UK correspondent for the ABP Group’s The Telegraph and Ananda Bazar Patrika (“Man Friday” she calls herself) and about my age. But the similarities end there; I’m an unreformed hack, she’s the author of three highly readable and successful books on Indo-British themes. The first, Curry, was written in 1999 and the revised edition was released to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the first Indian restaurant in Britain.
The hardback edition of Spy Princess, the story of a descendent of Tipu Sultan who spied for the British during World War II and was executed by the Nazis, went into five editions in India and a fifth edition is being printed in the UK. Her latest, Victoria and Abdul, written in 2010, topped the non-fiction bestseller list for several weeks in India. Now, both Spy Princess and Victoria and Abdul have been optioned for film rights by UK production houses. The latter has also attracted considerable coverage in the British press as much for the subject as its post-publication developments.
I start to ask her about haggis pakoras (haggis being a Scottish dish of sheep’s insides and definitely an acquired taste), which she mentions in Curry, but she’s still excited about Victoria and Abdul. A revised edition of the story of Abdul Karim and his controversial relationship with Queen Victoria, whom he served as munshi, was published in April to include Karim’s diary, the discovery of which is a story in itself. This was the journal Karim wanted to publish and which the royal household thwarted. “For a historian it’s like finding treasure,” she says.
How did she find it? When she was researching the book she had visited Agra, where Karim’s grave is located and where he had lived. His house, however, had been occupied since Partition — his family had fled to Pakistan — and the occupants didn’t know anything about him. Since Karim didn’t have any children, Basu realised she had hit a dead-end.
Still, “I knew the moment the hardback came out, somebody would contact me. So in every interview I said I am looking for the descendants and I know they’re somewhere out there.” The answers were closer than she had anticipated. A friend of her sister’s called to say her mother-in-law, who lives in Bangalore, is related to Abdul Karim. “And this was a family my sister knew for three or four years!” The mother-in-law concerned was the daughter of Karim’s nephew (the same one Karim had adopted and who lived with him in England). At 85 years old, she was the last of that generation
“She was lovely, spoke perfect English and she was born in the Agra house and had memories of it,” Basu recalls. That was how she learnt that the rest of the family was in Karachi and had the diaries. So Basu flew back to London for a Pakistan visa (with her British citizenship, this wasn’t a problem) and then flew to Karachi to meet the family. “To see the diaries, it was such a lovely feeling — the whole story was actually complete now!”
The crispy fish arrives and Basu heaps my plate. I vaguely register that the “piquant sauce” complements the crisp batter well but it’s her story that holds my attention. Karim’s diary was written in English because he intended to publish it. “It was quite sad,” says Basu, “he’s written a message for someone ‘into whose hands this may chance to fall’. And I was the one! It was a lovely feeling especially because Victoria’s family tried to suppress it and I had now got the story right out there!”
The diary has a true certified copy of a letter from the Queen — “hugely significant” because her son Edward VII had had the original burnt — written three months after he arrived asking him to stay on because she liked him and wanted him to teach her Hindustani. This was in response to his request to return to Agra after he “basically threw a tantrum and said he didn’t like being a menial servant when he had been a clerk in Agra jail before that”. Inevitably, the publication of the revised edition created a stir in the UK, where she received lavish coverage in the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Express and Daily Mail.
Incredibly, the Karachi family had never read the diary but wrote thanking her for giving Karim the place he deserved (“they liked the fact that I told a Pakistan daily that he was no Rasputin”). As for the Bangalore family, Basu asked them why they had been so quiet when they had photographs of him with Victoria. It turned out they were quite ashamed of him — he seemed to come out as a manipulative wheeler dealer. Some commentators had pointed this out but as Basu explains, “Sure he was. I don’t say he’s a saint at all, but I saw it from his side. He’s just 24 years old and here’s his chance to ask for favours. After all, everybody was asking for favours then.”
The pork and jasmine rice are served and we dig in appreciatively, chatting in parochial Benglish patois about her life, her two daughters and her journalist husband. Her father, C R Basu, was in the Cabinet secretariat and served in Dhaka and Kathmandu, where she did most of her schooling. College was at St Stephens, where she read history.
I ask about her next book but she surprises me by saying her time is now taken up with a project to build a memorial for Noor Inayat Khan, the spy princess. The project was prompted by suggestions from several readers who read Basu’s book about Noor’s touchingly tragic life. Basu took the suggestion to heart, campaigning among Asian women who had been elected to Parliament for the first time. They tabled an “early day motion” — a sort of single-sentence motion that is not voted on but open for signature for the duration of the session. Some 34 MPs immediately signed — among them Valerie Vaz (sister of former MP Keith Vaz) and former actor Glenda Jackson. Basu then extended the campaign to powerful Asian women such as film-maker Gurinder Chaddha and so on and set up a website (www.noormemorial.org) to garner support.
The memorial will now be a bust on Gordon Square — Noor lived in a house just off it — near University College, London. Getting the Chancellor of the University of London to agree to donate the land was the easy bit (being a historian, he was happy to agree). Now comes the tough part, which is raising £100,000 for the projects. “Public statues are so expensive,” she rues, “it’s not just the bust, it’s the lettering, the stone, the landscape and, oh my God, there’s so much work!”
She eagerly asks me to name Indian corporate houses she thinks might be interested in contributing. I name some that either had a hand in preserving heritage or large complements of women executives but point out that Noor isn’t well known in India. “Well, she is there in the consciousness of those who read the book,” she points out. Even Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was moved by the story when he visited Noor’s house. “He said, ‘etho young, etho sundor, ki strong moral fibre’,” (how young, how beautiful, what strong moral fibre).
Our conversation winds down to the status of British cuisine in the UK and, yes, the haggis pakoras, which she says have been spiced up and the more horrible bits kept out. Apart from the Noor memorial what was next on her agenda? “I have a job, you know and the next few weeks will be all about the royal wedding,” she rolls her eyes. By now, she’s nervously eyeing her watch and I tell her to run off while I pay the bill. Do I need a photograph? No, I tell her, we do a sketch. “Don’t make me look too fat!” she giggles before rushing away.