This week I discovered a movie that I highly recommend – “Victoria and Abdul” starring Judy Dench and Ali Fazel. The story follows closely a well researched book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu which describes the highly unusual relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a servant from northern India who was to serve the Queen during her year of jubilee in 1887, and instead for more than a decade until her death, became her Munshi, a close member of her inner circle as her confidante and teacher.
The story details the exceptional nature of Queen Victoria’s attraction to Abdul’s intellect and knowledge of so many matters outside of her realm of experience. It also illustrates Abdul’s courage to rise above societal norms to teach her despite the differences in their social standings, she the highest royalty and he the lowest servant and of another race. He met her at a time late in her reign when she was quite bored with life so the appeal of the exotic knowledge he shared with her awakened her intellectually, spiritually, politically, and emotionally. Learning of the fruit mango and trying it for the first time brought childlike pleasure to this staid royal personage. She studied Indian culture, religion, and language, and conversed for hours on many topics with Abdul, such activities crossing all barriers, not the least of which were racial bigotry rampant in the royal palace as well as in British society at the time. The boundaries they crossed even included his hiding that he had been part of the rebellion in India against British imperialism, a poignant revelation showing the profound depth of their relationship that such a divisive fact could be overcome, understood, and forgiven by the Queen.
How could two people so vastly different be able to love each other? For it becomes clear that the human hurdles were all cleared in order for the relationship to flourish. Nor did either of them succumb to the immense pressure put on them to act as expected rather than as their hearts dictated. As a result, what beauty was created. As Queen Victoria saw Abdul’s people as human beings rather than as political enemies, or as people of a then considered lesser stature, how compassionate she became politically. Her actions as Queen were influenced in redemptive ways. How much she grew as a person. Understanding Abdul’s humanity brought knowledge to her of the humanity of those very different from herself. And for a queen to get that message is even more striking since she had been trained to not give into many of the feelings and beliefs of which Abdul was reminding her – compassion, kindness, equality of all, value and worth of all people as created beings, beauty in differences, intellect in others with beliefs different than our own. By removing the social barriers to each learning of the other, the innate glory of God’s created beings was seen vividly. The power of the love in their relationship, as a mother to a son, overcame the divisiveness created by mankind’s distorted views at the time.
Abdul was able to overcome all of the expectations put on him to not fear the Queen. Initially he was strictly cautioned by the royal staff to not even make eye contact with her as he served her. But when he did, and when she returned the gaze, it was as if there was created a connection bigger than either of them, a force able to break down barriers on all levels that would by society’s standards keep them separated. Abdul was able to see as Victoria as a person rather than as a Queen. He could see her childlike wonder as he taught her of his homeland in India. His love for her created trust and vulnerability allowing the exterior trappings of what is expected of the Queen to fall away revealing the inner beauty HaShem had put in her as in each of us, and is still there despite our life experiences or our age. The gift of allowing this trust and love to flourish blessed both of them as well as those touched by the Queen’s kind acts to Karim, his family, and to others as a result.
In some ways, however, the goodness in their relationship was limited in its effect, for the Royal Palace was not ready to accept Abdul in the way the Queen had. Once she died, the true story of their relationship was hidden for more than half of a century. Most of the journals and contemporaneous evidence of their intimacy was destroyed by the royal family and court. Until recent scholarship through the investigative journalism of Ms. Basu, the story of Abdul’s influence over Queen Victoria was told negatively, primarily as a result of the first half of this century’s racist viewpoint. So as the real story now is out there, it is a blessing to us to learn from the mistakes of those who could not appreciate it at the time. And we can see that when love drives a relationship, we have a choice to grow in its flowering as did those who were positively influenced, or to choose to live with blinded eye as many others did at the time. Though note that although it took so many years, in the end, HaShem has shown us the truth, as descendants were able to come forward with Abdul’s journals and other evidence to show that love conquers all.
Clearly, we live in a very divisive time. Seeing the two most unlikely people as Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim able to overcome their differences at all levels provides an enormous encouragement to us that unity is possible despite great differences. As we are able to see the beauty in those quite different from ourselves, and to take the time to get to know one another rather than to process through sound bites, we enable HaShem to use love through our actions toward others to repair the world, Tikkun Olam.
Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed when thinking about this topic of the divisiveness in our world since we often go to the topic of politics first. When that happens we can feel helpless, exceptionally frustrated, or angry. Although even in politics, conversation can lead to better understanding, we can choose to live in the model of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, not allowing our differences to dictate how we think about or treat others. Beyond politics, there are people on the fringes of our lives whom we don’t know well since they’re not who we would typically pick as friends. Or we may even have certain relatives that we don’t seem to have much in common with, and so, we avoid. Surely the gulf between us and them is not as vast as that between the Queen of England and an Indian servant at the turn of the century! The example from this story would tell us that as we form relationships with those quite different from ourselves we gain the possibility to not only enrich our own lives, but also the lives of those around us in ways we can’t even anticipate. As we learn more of others and their differences, we often find we are more alike than different, as our common humanity brings us together.
Taking the example from the movie, despite our stations in life, we can both enjoy eating mango together, or learning of another’s culture and experiences, sharing our own. As we do, there is a greater possibility that some of our preconceived notions of those unlike us may change – for the better. As each of us live loving others, how much more love and awe of HaShem’s created beings become a part of our consciousness, and part of this world. Our differences with others pale in comparison to all that we have in common, especially all the good that is in each of us as we tap into the childlike wonder of our youth. What wondrous new information will we learn that will remind us of the joy of discovering something new, and similarly, what can we share with another to inspire and bring joy to a fellow traveler’s walk?
There is no doubt that Queen Victoria’s heart opened to love a person so opposite from her in about every way possible – a political enemy, a religious heretic from the viewpoint of the Church of England of which she was the head, a servant of the lowest class at the time. Courage, fueled by seeing truth, allowed her to act with love toward Abdul. .And courage enabled Abdul to see the Queen as just another human being, not just see the trappings she portrayed by her title. Love and courage, especially when in combination, can bring together those with very different world views, and go far to healing the schisms humanity has created.
This week I encourage you to reach out to others in your life with whom you don’t normally choose to socialize with and share your life, your heart, and invite them in. Maybe just a phone call, or even text, can start the process. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to give of yourself through community service, at a local food pantry or shelter, to learn some stories of those unlike yourself. Make time to listen more, and do so without prejudgment. And when listening to the morning or evening news, take a deep breath, and at least try to put yourself in the other’s shoes.