It's Hard Out There For A Prince
By Tim Murphy
He always dresses traditionally. 'When you reach a certain age in your life, and especially when you come from this kind of a family,' he says, 'I would think it's better to follow the traditionals, to be nearer to the roots you come from.'
Having rebelled against royal tradition by coming out, does he feel he has to be twice as princely? 'I would not agree with you,' he says calmly. 'By coming out I have continued to fulfill my royal duties. I could have very well stayed here in Bombay and lived my independent life. But I came back to Rajpipla immediately after I came out. I am proud that I am born to this family. There's a superstition that you have to be in your last life mauled and eaten by a tiger to be born into a royal family. So I often joke, if you want to be a royal in your next birth, go to the safari park and present yourself to the tiger and get killed.'
I ask if he's dating someone within his caste, the Kshatriya, the second tier after the Brahmins. (Caste-based discrimination is illegal in India, but caste still throws a long shadow across the country.) 'Can we wait to talk about that? I have to take some permissions before I talk about it.'
Then we set to his favorite topic: media coverage. He recently restated his plans to adopt an heir, eliciting a fresh flurry of worldwide news reports. He pulls out yesterday's copy of the tabloid-y Mumbai Mirror. THE PINK PRINCE blares the headline, over a photo of him in front of his palace, which, indeed, looks like an enormous pink wedding cake. The piece, by a gay journalist, is affectionately bitchy, at one point riffing on 'the prince's perineum.' But the prince seems happy with it. 'The writer told me that the gay and lesbian journalists association has declared me the most publicized gay person,' he says. 'They want to give me an award.'
Two mornings later, the prince, rocking a bright orange kurta, picks me up at the airport in Baroda, about a three-hour drive from Rajpipla. Soon, we're in the bright, airy Baroda branch of Lakshya Trust, surrounded by dozens of chatty Gujarati gays (the more feminine ones are called kothis) and hijras. On one wall, there's a little shrine to Bahuchara, the Hindu goddess of the hijras, who've long held a narrow place in Indian society as wedding performers, beggars, and sex workers.
Today, Lakshya Baroda is hosting guys from its other sites in Gujarat, as well as a gay group from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), making for a festive atmosphere. We sit barefoot in a circle for a delicious, noisy lunch of hot daal (lentils) over rice, spicy acher (pickles), and sweet gulab jamun, which are a bit like Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins.
Later, we gather on carpets at the foot of the prince, who's seated alongside Anis Chaudhuri, a short, intense, bearded gay man who heads the group from Kolkata. I'm seated next to Viswa Nandi, a sassy hijra who wears piercing blue-tinted contact lenses. Chaudhuri jumps between Hindi and English, 'He is one of us,' he says of the prince. 'All of us know how difficult it is being who we are, but we need to come out. If Manav put so much at risk, why can't we put our small, small, small, small personalities at risk?'
The prince then speaks for a very long time, mostly in Hindi with dashes of English. 'I'm focusing on international media now,' he tells the crowd at one point. It's hot in the room, and the gays grow restless and chatty. I ask who could picture themselves living with a lover. Dramatically, Anis asks Viswa to come stand by him. The two tell me that they have long been a couple but that each lives with his parents, because domestic partnership would be, in Viswa's words, 'next to impossible.' The group applauds them. It's a very Oprah moment.
Around dusk we arrive at the palace, which has barracks nearby for servants and their family members, about 200 in all. Four men appear to help us unload our bags. Three reporters from a national TV network are there, waiting for interviews with the prince. 'I am the honey and you are the bees,' the prince says, sweeping his arm over the three reporters and me. He disappears, then returns for the interviews in a silk kurta threaded with what looks like Lurex. The TV crew bickers in Gujarati over technicalities while the prince waits patiently. 'This is about my adoption,' he tells me, before noting, 'I've had seven or eight cameras in here before.'
The prince indeed intends to adopt, he later explains, but probably not until his father dies. The child should be about 14, from his extended Rajput clan -- 'I just can't get a beggar from the streets and expect them to carry out the royal duties,' he tells me -- intelligent ('I don't want to take a dumb boy'), and, of course, a boy. Why not a girl? Absolutely not, he says. 'That's the royal way.' Why not change that? 'Once the girl gets married, the family name changes and the dynasty changes. I would not like my dynasty to end.' That pretty much settles that.
The next morning, the personal secretary to the prince's father shows up, looking stern. He reports that the prince's father, the Maharaja Raghubir Singh Gohil, was none too pleased with a story in that day's local paper quoting the prince saying he'd like to eventually shack up with a boyfriend. 'I told him, 'Yes, they keep writing that stuff,' ' said the prince, 'and he said, 'No, you are the one who is giving it to them. They wouldn't write that on their own.' So it is a sign that people may not accept [his openly having a partner]. I'm a bit concerned about that.'
I don't get to meet the prince's father, or his fearsome, indomitable, politically connected mother, the Maharani Rukmani Devi, who by every account sounds like a major bitch. (After his coming-out, the prince has said, she would avert her eyes when they passed on the stairs.) They are at a wedding in Bombay, where they inhabit the top few floors of a luxury high-rise. At the palace, they live in a separate wing from the prince and rarely see him, communicating mostly through their respective secretaries.
This is not just a result of the prince's coming-out. It's always been this way, he says. 'I was brought up by a paid servant,' he explains over lunch on a balcony of the palace overlooking banana fields and the sinuous Narmada River. As a child he assumed the servant was his mother, until learning otherwise.
Because he never got real love from his parents, he says, he fears he's unable to really love someone, even his new mystery man. 'I don't know the definition of love. Say, for example, when you have fever, your head will be warm. That's a symptom. But what's a symptom of love?'
Does he miss the guy when they're apart? 'I'm so busy with my own work that I don't even think of him,' he says. Yes, they've spent the night together, but he won't talk about it. 'I'm trying to have a relationship, because I strongly feel that for gay men, you need to have a single partner sooner or later. As we grow old, there should be a companion for us.'
He says he's never had a serious relationship before, just some tricks and a few admirers. But he does seem hung up on a palace servant boy he'd mess around with when they were 12 or 13. 'He loved wearing jingles on his legs and jumping around,' he recalls. 'He was so effeminate that a blind person could tell he was a pansy. We never got caught -- the palace was so huge. Now he's happily married, in quotes, in Rajasthan,' he adds, somewhat bitterly.
Earlier, he showed me a portrait of himself he'd commissioned some years ago. 'Sometimes when I get depressed, I look at this picture and feel better,' he explained. I asked what he meant. 'I feel that had I not been gay I would have been leading a family life today, married to a princess, having kids to look after,' he replied. 'When I go for public functions with other royal families, they are there with their princes and princesses, whereas I am alone. So that's what makes me a bit depressed.'
How does the portrait help? 'It cheers me up,' he said. 'It says, 'No, you are something. You can't forget that you're a prince.' '
He doesn't brood for very long. 'I've seen donkeys with full erections in Rajpipla,' he tells me excitedly as we come down from lunch. 'They're huge!'