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Victoria and Abdul shows us how friendship can transcend barriers

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This story from an earlier era points to the possibility of some good coming out of the interaction of language and culture at a tender age in our Chinese language- analaysian society today, says Mt Elvira.

The movie Victoria and Abdul has not reached our shores. But my curiosity about it was piqued when CNN aried an interview with actress Judie Dench and writer Shrabani Basu, who discovered Abdul’s story.

The fact that it is based on a true story that spanned over a decade makes the story more interesting. It seems so incongruous a friendship in that day and age, and as I read details of the story, I can’t help reflecting that some aspects of it may have relevance to our society today

How did such a friendship transcend the racial prejudices and the stiff Victorian values of that era? It seemed Queen Victoria was drawn to the young Abdul “who speaks to her as a person and not the queen. She is curious and wants to learn about his country, language, and culture,” according to one report.

By default and not by design, the increasing enrolment of non-Malays in the Chinese vernacular primary schools in our country may yet play a role in the integration of rthe various ethnic groups in our country. I do not agree that the vernacular primary school system is a cause for disunity in our country now. What we see in society at large is a reflection of the divide-and-rule policies of the Umnoputras. The many non-Malays now learning the language and inadvertently the culture of Chinese Malaysians may perhaps lay the groundwork for more inter-racial friendships in time to come.

Many of us who were products of the English language primary schools era remember the carefree times when friendships and prejudice-free interactions transcended our racial origins.

We are at a different era now, and ugly divisions in society are already emerging our school system. [Think of the attempt at having separate Muslim and non-Muslims cups at a school water dispenser.]

The story of Victoria and Abdul points to the possibility of some good coming out of this interaction of language and culture at a tender age. Let’s be blunt – the episode that took place in a Putrajaya primary school in all likelihood happened because most of the pupils were from a certain ethnic group.

Queen Victoria demonstrated her commitment to Abdul and her esteem for family by bringing his wife and extended family from India to live with him, notes one report. Of course, it was a small matter to her; what more, India was just another colony in the vast British empire then.

Yet, whatever other aspects of Queen Victoria’s persona that has been dissected in the public arena, the respect she had for the young Abdul must have played a crucial role in their decade-long friendship. It indicated that the friendship they shared was beyond that of a master-servant relationship.

Perhaps the interactions of young minds of different races in our Chinese primary schools now will have the same effect in time to come – in this context, transending the ‘ketuanan Melayu’ concept.

Genuine unity among the rakyat can’t be realised as long as one ethnic group feels they have a right to lord it over all the rest. With an ‘us versus them’ mindset so prevalent in all aspects of our society, how can there be true integration and unity?

As a postscript, leaving aside the politics of our nation, it is interesting that the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul was deemed so scandalous that after her death, her family had every existence of Abdul scrubbed from royal history. The family evicted Karim from the home the queen had given him and had him deported back to India immediately, without farewell or fanfare.

But Victoria’s son Edward did comply with her request and included Karim in the funeral procession, allowing him to be the last person to view Victoria’s body before her casket was closed.

The royal family’s eradication of Abdul was so thorough that a full hundred years would pass before Shrabani noticed a strange clue left in Victoria’s summer home—and her consequential investigation led to the discovery of Victoria’s relationship with Abdul.

Mt Elvira is the pseudonym of a regular reader of Aliran.

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