It's Hard Out There For A Prince
By Tim Murphy
I start meeting the people in the prince's life who are the surrogates for the parents he barely knows. The next afternoon, we drive through the narrow streets of charming, small-town Rajpipla to the hospital, to visit the ailing wife of the prince's 85-year-old longtime secretary, Champak Singh Mahida. He is a frail but sweet-natured, quick-minded gentleman, formerly the secretary to the prince's father and grandfather, and speaks a courtly formal English. The affection between him and the prince is palpable.
'I'm his father, guardian, friend, companion, and nearest secret servant,' says Mr. Mahida.
'And sometimes I become his secretary also,' says the prince.
When the prince's coming-out story hit the paper two years ago, Mr. Mahida woke him to show it to him. 'I was the first man to congratulate him,' Mr. Mahida tells me. 'I always knew something about him was very weak. He shouldn't try to hide it. It's in his nature that he has this physical weakness. But his heart is clear and he always tries to help.'
The prince is smiling resignedly. I ask Mr. Mahida if he would like to see the prince settle down with a man. No, says the old gent -- the prince's status is too high for that. 'What is the necessity of that? He has many friends. If he wants to live like that, I'm the person.'
Mr. Mahida has a few choice words about the prince's parents too. 'They hate me due to his company. Everywhere he goes, I go. His father is very kind-natured, but his mother is very proud and strong-natured.' By coming out, he says, the prince 'is the only person who has defeated her ego. One day she will believe that she had wrongly acted.'
We bid the Mahidas goodbye. In the car, I ask the prince if he's bothered by the old man's mixed message. Not really, he tells me. He's grateful that he accepts his being gay at all.
That night, we visit the prince's dear friend, Dada, whose real name is Jayant Trivedi. He's an elderly, liberal-minded Brahmin who lived nearly his entire life in Toronto, amassing a small fortune in business, before returning to India and building a big, airy home perched high over the Narmada. He lives there with his sweet-natured, enormous, couch-ridden wife, Indu. Dada is very important in the prince's life, particularly because of Dada's new vocation as an astrologer -- a highly respected profession in India, where people consult astrologers for everything from wedding dates to buying a new car. It was Dada, after all, who after the prince's divorce read his chart and told him flat-out that he was gay.
Dada remembers that he looked at the prince's chart and said, 'Manav, you don't like the touch of a woman, do you?' This was an enormous relief to the prince. I ask Dada how else, other than in the stars, he might have known. 'His gestures,' he says, standing on his terrace overlooking the lush acres where he and the prince are planning to build an old-age home and AIDS hospice for graying gay men. Dada says he has told many young local men and women that they're gay. 'To this day,' he says, 'I haven't come across a person who said, 'No, I'm not.' '
At dinner, the prince says that he thinks being gay is inborn. Indu says she thinks it's karma for doing something bad in a previous life. An awkward silence ensues. That's the only explanation for bad things happening, she goes on. Otherwise, why would she be laid up with so many illnesses that she can barely walk? It's a sad moment, but it's also sobering: Even the people who accept the prince think he's done something wrong to end up this way.
Still, he and the Trivedis are very close. In fact, this is where the prince first spent the night with his new mystery lover, whom Dada refers to more than once. The prince shushes him.
Soon, the prince and I will fly back to Bombay together to hit one of the regular dance parties put on by Gay Bombay (GayBombay.org), the city's major gay social network. But first we make one last stop in Rajpipla -- his small farm, just a few miles from the palace on the banks of the Narmada. There, he grows millet, lentil, and wheat, accompanied by his farmhand, Devji, Devji's wife, and two dogs, one of which the prince insists is gay.
Here he also cultivates earthworms, which eat the farm's biodegradable waste, and whose poop he sells as organic compost. He digs into a worm bed and pulls one up in his palm. He's loved worms since he was young -- they give him 'a good, gentle, ticklish feeling,' he says -- and especially loves that they have both male and female organs. 'That's the womb,' he says, pointing to the worm's bulge. 'The female end is more aggressive and does most of the foreplay.' He is happiest here on this remote farm; it's where he hopes to build a home and settle down with a man.
The party Saturday night, at a club called Karma just off Bombay's iconic Marine Drive, draws about 250 guys, not as many as the last one -- but then again, the police raided another gay party in the nearby suburb of Thane just a few weeks ago for no apparent reason, and it's put a chill on the scene. There are two rooms, one for Bollywood pop songs and one for western-style dance music, but the boys pack the Bollywood room, getting as drunk as they can off the very weak drinks. Wearing a light blue kurta and sipping a white rum and Coke, the prince stands or sits awkwardly off to the side. He says he is delighted when guys come up to him and tell him he's inspired them''I think my sacrifice is having some positive consequences,' he tells me'but otherwise he is profoundly shy. We sit together and watch the other dancers.
A cute, petite, Chinese-looking boy sits down next to him. 'You're a prince, right?' he asks. The prince nods. The boy drags him up on the dance floor and virtually vogues around the prince, who stands there haplessly for a few seconds before sitting back down.
The party ends at 1 a.m. 'I didn't know I had so many admirers,' says the prince in the cab home. He receives a text from one of them. It reads: 'omigod i'm still shaking. i can't tell you how amazed i am at your humbleness. thank you for making my night.'
He also got three invites to lunch or dinner. He says that he'll have to start mimicking the automated message you hear when you make a customer-service call in India: 'You are in queue, please wait.' He then smiles at his own joke.
The prince flies back to Gujarat. He has Lakshya business to attend to there, and he's going to have a few quiet days with Mystery Lover at a friend's country house. I attend a meeting organized by Gay Bombay, about 25 gay guys who are scared in the wake of the Thane raid. The organizers, Vikram Doctor, a journalist, and his boyfriend, Alok Gupta, a lawyer, tell the guys that often the cops will try to blackmail you only if they sense you fear being outed. 'Are you scared?' asks Doctor. 'Are you closeted? If you are, you're fucked.' It's Doctor's plea, in a sense, to get more of the men to come out, but it's a tough sell. 'Hijras and kothis have the guts to organize,' says Doctor. 'We [straight-appearing] gay men don't.' The meeting leaves me depressed, wondering if the gay guys' fear will ever boil over into rage, and street protest.
Back in Bombay a few days later, the prince calls me and puts me on the phone with Chirantana Bhatt, the 27-year-old journalist who broke his coming-out story. She's become his first female friend since then, a confidante. 'He can't resist the temptation of talking to media,' she tells me. 'He likes the attention. His mother never gave him that.'
When we meet for dinner that night, he's got a surprise for me -- his Mystery Lover, a hulking, swarthy, 44-year-old Gujarati musician, not quite a royal but hailing from a Rajput landowning family. He's dressed, like the prince, in a traditional red kurta, his ears heavy with ancestral gold rings and studs. Mystery Lover, or M.L., who was educated in the United Kingdom and speaks with a plummy Indo-British accent, asks me not to use his name in this story. 'This will bring all sorts of strange people into my life that I'm not ready to deal with,' he says. 'And I don't want to put any additional strain on a new relationship.'
I ask how they met. M.L. does most of the talking, diving into a plate of tandoori prawns, while the prince, who has a tiny appetite and is rail-thin, picks at his food and mostly listens. They connected a year and a half ago through the Gay Bombay list-serve. There was no immediate attraction, they say. 'We took one look at each other and I thought, Oh, God,' says M.L. 'Me too,' says the prince. 'I thought, He's absolutely not my cup of coffee.' But they stayed friends, bonded by their Rajput roots and love of classical Indian music, and talked in general terms about what each wanted in a lover. Finally, out of town one night for a concert, they shared a bed, with a bank of pillows between them.
'It was the Great Wall of China,' the prince says coyly. 'He didn't want to break my virginity.'
'What virginity?' says M.L.
The prince ditched M.L. in the morning. 'My suspicions were confirmed about blue bloods being shit,' says M.L. But they started dating. Eventually, they really slept together, at Dada's place. The proper affair began rockily because of gossip from the Gay Bombay crowd. 'We go to a movie premiere,' says M.L., 'to find these bitches doing these low-sweeping curtsies, calling us 'Your Highness.' '
Since then, things seem to be going OK. M.L. is affectionate with the prince, calling him Hukum, a Hindi honorific that means 'your command.' The two talk about building a house together on the prince's farm.
There is just the matter of the prince's fear that he can't love. He can't quite answer seriously when I ask him what he likes in M.L. 'He's arty-farty,' he says. 'I thought he'd be a good hunky guy from the warrior clan.'
M.L. senses the hedging. 'I think you will find that our Manav is not very communicative,' he says.
But I've come to feel protective toward the prince, and it's not the first time M.L. has disparaged him in front of me for being a frigid noble. Does it bother the prince?
He shakes his head. 'Sometimes I feel I'm not human at all,' he says.
'Don't say that,' says M.L., suddenly tender.
'I want to change,' says the prince.
After dinner, we walk along the promenade by the stinking, trash-filled Arabian Sea and talk about gay rights. I tell them about the Gay Bombay meeting, how confronting the police had barely come up.
'India needs a Stonewall,' says M.L.
That's why the prince never stops talking to the press. 'The moment you stop doing press...' he trails off. 'I'm trying to see the next celebrity come out.'
We hug goodbye on the roadside and promise to talk soon. In the cab, I turn around to watch them walking side by side up the highway -- just two more gay men trying to cut through the baggage of adolescence and find love in midlife. Except, of course, one lives in a palace, oversees 200 servants, and commands millions of hits on Google. Not that you'd have to remind him. Even on bad days, you can't forget that you're a prince.