Shrabani Basu, a well known historian who has solved many a jigsaw puzzle pertaining to important but relatively unknown aspects about pre-independent India. She was born in Calcutta and grew up in Dhaka, Kathmandu and Delhi. She graduated in history from St Stephen’s College, Delhi and completed her Masters from Delhi University. She also writes for different newspapers and according to her she has always combined her journalism with her love of history, and all her books have evolved from her observations about the shared histories of India and Britain.
Shrabani Basu is the author of three very successful non fictions. Two of her books have Pakistani connections. ‘Curry’, The Story of the Nation’s Favourite Dish’ which a quarter of Britons eat at least once a week. Chicken tikka masala and rogan josh are today as much a part of British life as fish and chips and football. But how did the humble curry conquer British hearts? The book traces the history of curry from the days of the Raj, through the emergence of the first curry houses in Britain in the nineteenth century, to its eventual transformation as Britain's national dish.
‘Spy Princess’ is the story of Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who became a secret agent during the Second World War. She became the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France in 1943 and worked under the code name 'Madeleine.' Britain has posthumously awarded her the George Cross for her extraordinary bravery, and France honoured her with the Croix de Guerre. The fascinating biography traces the story of Noor Inayat Khan and looks at the spirit that moved her.
‘Victoria & Abdul’ is the third book. It examines how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the Empire, and his influence over the queen at a time when independence movements in the sub-continent were growing in force. Yet at its heart it is a tender love story between an ordinary Indian and his elderly queen, a relationship that survived the best attempts to destroy it.
According to Basu her book ‘Victoria & Abdul’ has Pakistani connections because the family of Abdul moved to Karachi after the partition and she found his secret diaries in Karachi. “People do not know the fact that Queen Victoria could read and write Urdu and it was all because of Abdul who thought her Urdu. He used to cook curry for her and many Indian foods. In fact she was a proper Malaika Hindustan,” she said.
In 2010, Basu set up the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust to ensure that Noor’s story and sacrifice were preserved for the next generation. The Trust is raising funds to install a bust of Noor Inayat Khan in Gordon Square in London. Her work to preserve the memory of the World War II heroine has been commended in the House of Lords.
Basu was very much excited when she visited Lahore for the first time during Lahore Literary Festival as she was invited as a panellist to talk about Victoria’s Secret. During her visit she shared some of her feelings about this city as a historian and spoke briefly about the literary value with which the city is associated. She spoke briefly about her work.
“This is my second trip to Pakistan. Last time I visited Karachi but Lahore was always the city which I wanted to visit. It was my passion to come to Lahore which is a cultural capital. It has always been a home of poetry and also has much historical significance. Many great writers and poets belong to this city. Poets like like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib lived here. Being a historian I always wanted to come here. Visiting Lahore is like a dream come true,” she said.
Basu is writing her fourth book and doing lot of research. She said, “I am working on my next book and it will be published next year. The book is about the Indian soldiers who took part in World War I. Remember when I say India or Indians; it refers to India of pre-partition.
“In this book I am looking at history of Indian soldiers who participated in the WWI. It was the first European War they were fighting and for the first time Indian soldiers weretaking part in a mechanical war.
“For Pakistani readers it is really interesting because the first Victoria Cross ever to be won by any South Asian was won by a Pakistani and his name is Khudadad Khan. His statue is in Rawalpindi. I am researching on their personal histories and all these stories that where they went,” she briefed.
Talking about her sources of research she said, “There are many sources but one major source is the letters written by these soldiers. There is a big archive of these letters in the British Library.”
There are many historians who had compiled facts about the Indian subcontinent but Shrabani Basu makes herself distinguish among all those. She tries to reveal those facts which perhaps no other historian has mentioned in such detail.