Have a drink with: Abdul Karim
The jewel in the Crown
Ask him about: Royal language lessons
The movie Victoria and Abdul portrays the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a young Indian man assigned to her service in the late 1880s. Karim, originally a clerk from Agra, India, came to Victoria’s service during her Golden Jubilee in 1887. He became a favorite friend and confidante, acting as the Queen’s Urdu language teacher and Indian secretary, much to the frustrated jealousy of the royal household.
Victoria had a complicated relationship with India: on the one hand, she was fascinated with and fetishized all things Indian – learning Urdu, bringing curries onto the regular dining rotation at the palace, and decorating an entire lavish chamber at her Osborne House with Indian arts and architecture (including a lavish portrait of Karim himself, alongside paintings of Indian craftspeople). On the other hand, the allure doesn’t change the fact that she was the ruler of a forcibly and uncomfortably subdued nation of people whose welfare wasn’t permitted to muddle the interior decorating. It’s hard to know for sure whether Abdul Karim was a proxy for Victoria’s general fascination with exotic India; a genuine friend who provided the added benefit of making her stiff-necked family crazy; a subservient target for the Queen’s romantic or maternal impulses; or something else entirely.
Nor is the movie the first time Western voices have been the ones to comment on Abdul Karim’s story, or his status as what writer Bilal Qureshi called “Manic Pixie Dream Brownie.” Karim was no stranger to news media at the time, and American papers particularly covered the fact of his employment with condescending, starchy amusement – like, look at the Queen learning the funny Eastern language! She has an Indian tutor! Just a few of the winning clippings:
Have a drink with: Queen Isabella of Spain
Queen, ass-kicker, Rules girl, working mom
Ask her about: kicking everyone out of Spain
A few year-end lists recommended Kristin Downey’s biography of Queen Isabella, so lately I’ve been knee-deep in early modern Spain and a lot of questions about the famous lady.
What is image-making and what is truth? Was Isabella the complete idealized ruler? Was she calculating, maniacal? Was she or Ferdinand more responsible for ills like the Inquisition or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain? What aspects did her piety carry?
All of this brings me back to one of history’s most prevalent and maddening problems: unless you were there (and in most cases you weren’t), you can’t know exactly how things went. And even if you were, your reaction is yours alone – and trying to get into the head of any person other than yourself is foggy work. It’s the police lineup problem, or like being in a family where everyone has a slightly different story of how that fight at Christmas dinner went down, and everyone except that one cousin thinks Uncle Steve’s a jerk.
Said more nobly by John Gaddis: “but the past, in another sense, is something we can never have. For by the time we’ve become aware of what had happened it’s already inaccessible to us: we cannot relive, retrieve, or rerun it as we might some laboratory experiment or computer simulation. We can only represent it…We can perceive shapes through the fog and mist, we can speculate as to their significance, and sometimes we can even agree among ourselves as to what these are.”
Put another way, how do we solve a problem like Isabella?
Have a drink with: Akhenaten
Pharaoh, gender-bender, sun-worshiper, innovator
Ask him about: Starting your own religion in five easy steps
It’s amazing that so much interest persists in the ancient Egyptian ruler Akhenaten, a king about whom precious little is clear: no one knows when he was born or when he died, why he made the sweeping theological and societal changes that caused many scholars to call him the world’s first monotheist, or even who his successors were.
Still, it isn’t hard to see why the story’s a sticky one, and not least because company loves mystery. John Ray, writing in History Today, tossed off just a few of the speculations over which history has loved to ponder Akhenaten: “the ingredients are rich: a tormented visionary, a misunderstood poet, a visual artist of genius whose mission went unheeded, the apostle of domestic virtue, an incestuous child-abuser, a political disaster, an insane bisexual pope or ayatollah suffering from pathological endocrine disorder, a man out of his time.”
If Egyptian rulers were musicians, this guy is Gaga in a meat dress.