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It's Hard Out There For A Prince


[note: "It's Hard Out There For A Prince" first ran in our September, 2008, issue. We thought it was worth featuring again now that Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil is starring in the new reality series Undercover Princes which just debuted on BBC. Along with Prince Remigius of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and Prince Africa Zulu from Zululand, South Africa, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil is hoping to find someone who will love him for who he truly is and not just for his wealth or status. The three princes will go undercover, living and working as ordinary people for the first time in their lives and will attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of Brighton's single scene, join Internet dating sites, and even try their luck at speed dating. At the end of the series the princes will reveal their true identities to their chosen ones and whisk them back to their respective kingdoms. For more information about the show check out the BBC's website.]

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil ('Manav' to his friends), 39th in line to the throne of Rajpipla, a principality in the prosperous west'central Indian state of Gujarat, walks stiffly toward the camera in a tight-fitting kurta of luminous champagne-colored cotton and a pataka, or stole, of embroidered red silk organza. His bearing is stately, the better to balance his enormous green Jaipuri-print turban. He is dressed almost identically to his male maharaja ancestors going back centuries -- all of them fearsome Rajputs, a group within India's warrior caste -- whose portraits are hung around this cavernous front ballroom of a sprawling rococo 1910 palace. The chairs are cushioned in red brocade, the walls painted an eye-popping tangerine, and the slight down-at-heels scruffiness of the otherwise imposing room is highlighted by an unremarkable 19-inch TV, askew on a richly carved teak end table.

The prince sits bolt-upright on a divan, hands primly in his lap. 'My name is Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil,' he tells the camera, 'and I would be interested to come down to England.'

Other than me, this is the prince's media obligation of the day: to make an audition tape for a planned Channel Four reality show, The Traveling Prince, in which princes from around the world will travel to England and, hopefully, meet Prince Charles and Harry and Wills. The on-tape interview begins.

'What are you most fond of in life?' one of the cameramen reads from a card.

'Vildlife -- flora and fauna,' the prince responds in his patient, lilting, slightly adenoidal, V's-where-W's-should-go accent. 'And music is my passion.'

'What movies do you like?'

'I watch only historical films.'

'What are you known for?'

His family, the prince explains, despite having lost their formal power when Britain left India in 1947, still possesses enormous local esteem (not to mention a lot of real estate). 'We are even treated as gods in some areas,' he says. Then he gets down to the news peg: 'I became famous in India because I am the first member of a royal family to come out as a gay.'

'Who do you most admire?'

'I admire the courage of Elton John.'

'Who is your favorite American?'

'Oprah Winfrey. I really admire that woman, having the best talk show in the world.' (He was on it last fall, in a series featuring gay people from around the world.)

'What is your message to British people?'

'Because section 337 of our penal code still exists, there is a lot of stigma and discrimination in our country toward gays,' he says, referring to the Indian law, begun under 19th-century British rule, criminalizing gay sex. It's seldom enforced but often used by police to blackmail closeted gay men. The country's small cadre of out gay activists have long lobbied for its demise.

'Would you marry a man?'

'We can't get married. We can only have some sort of understanding between two partners, which I look for.'

'What do you like doing on a date?'

The prince squirms uncomfortably. 'Can I avoid this question?'
The interview is over. 'For me,' the prince asks, 'should they call this show Traveling Prince or Traveling Princess?'

Two of the prince's manservants unwind his turban. 'There's always too many reporters here,' he sighs to me. 'That's why I can never have sex here.' But, after a little more than 48 hours with him, I know the prince doth protest too much. Since he shocked and rocked India with his coming-out two years ago, he's become a media sensation, and it's already clear to me that he loves the adulation. In his own princely way, he might even be addicted to it -- a veritable Rajput media whore. But the prince, 42, says he wants love, and recently, I'm learning, it looks like he might have found it. The million-rupee question: Can he cool his love affair with the press long enough to nurture one with another man?

In March 2006, after years of silence that included what he calls 'a nervous breakdown' before a Bombay shrink helped him accept his gayness, the prince told his local paper that not only was he gay but that he had no intention of remarrying. (His first, brief marriage in the early '90s ended in divorce when the prince wouldn't consummate the union. His devastated wife left him on grounds of impotence and has remarried. They are not in touch.)

The reaction to his coming-out was seismic. His parents, who first thought he had been slandered, were horrified when they learned he'd green-lighted the story. His kinfolk in Rajpipla burned photos of him in protest. Soon after, his mother took out an ad in the local paper disowning and disinheriting him. Technically, though, she couldn't -- he is the only male heir to the dynasty -- and he stood his ground.

By that fall, the situation had improved: He celebrated his 41st birthday with a cultural festival at the palace attended by his father -- who'd reconciled with him -- and declared that he planned to adopt an heir from within his Rajput clan.

Meanwhile, the world press beat a path to his palace door, which brought heightened attention to Lakshya Trust, the nonprofit he had quietly started years ago to provide HIV prevention, counseling, and other services for the gays and hijras (transgender MTFs) of Gujarat.

Then came the ultimate accolade -- Oprah's invitation. Though he's been waited on since birth, the prince still marvels at the royal treatment the show gave him in Chicago. 'In spite of reaching so much in life, she is so humble,' he said about Oprah. 'She showed a lot of respect to me, coming from royalty. I had this feeling that we could actually see the struggle in each other's eyes -- I could feel what she's undergone in life.' On the show, he told her, 'Had I not been a gay, I would have proposed to you.' She replied, 'Nothing like living in a palace.'

A few days before I leave for India, the prince e-mailed me about travel details. It was 4 p.m. my time, the middle of the night his. We emailed back and forth:

ME: Isn't it your bedtime? ;)

PRINCE: yes it is but am unable to sleep. thinking about you...

ME: I hate to think I am keeping you awake. ;)

PRINCE: r u gay?

ME: YES! i guess i just assumed you knew. yes, been with the same guy for nearly 6 years. you seeing anyone?

PRINCE: will tell u when we meet

Vivek Anand, an excitable former ad man, sits in his tiny office in East Santacruz, a Mumbai neighborhood where he runs the local office of the Humsafar Trust, the pioneering Mumbai HIV prevention and support group for gay men and hijras founded by the godfather of Indian gay activism, Ashok Row Kavi, in 1994. 'Manav comes here all the time,' he says of the prince. 'He's just one of the queens who hang around here.' Anand knew Manav for many years as the founder of Lakshya Trust before he realized that he was the selfsame anonymous 'gay prince' that financed Humsafar's hotline -- Manav had never mentioned his princely status. 'In my mind, he's not a prince, he's a friend,' says Anand. 'I shout at him, I abuse him.'

According to Anand, the prince's disclosure was a massive shot in the arm to the gay men of India, most of whom are under enormous pressure from their families to marry (women). Many do, and have unprotected gay sex on the side. That's among the factors that have contributed to high levels of HIV in India -- about 2.5 million people, or 0.3 % of the population, rates far below countries in sub'Saharan Africa, but grave nevertheless.

Will the prince find love? I ask Anand. 'He has,' he says. 'With a very good friend of mine. He's a royal also. Why don't you suggest they start a royal gay men's group that gives money to Humsafar?'

Anand then accompanies me across town to Bandra, a leafy middle-class neighborhood. The prince is in town for lessons on his harmonium, an accordion-like instrument he has been studying religiously since he was 5. At a trendy soup-and-salad place, Anand introduces the prince and me, and then heads home, too tired to join us.

The prince, who is polite and reserved, has large, gentle brown eyes, a very prominent nose and moustache, and a diamond in each ear. (A friend of mine, meeting him later, says he looks like Snoop Dogg.) He attracts stares, but it's hard to know if it's because people recognize him as the gay prince or for the eccentric traditional Indian dress he wears wherever he goes. Tonight he wears a simple white kurta (long overshirt), the slipper-like leather shoes called mojri, and the tight-fitting pajama-type pants called churidar, which are artfully twisted around the legs. He lengthily explains how to twist them. 'Churi means bangles, and if you are wearing bangles on your leg, one above the other, how would they look? You see these pleats? You pull this down, and then take small pleats of it, and then twist.' It's all very Edie Beale.

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!'

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 (, 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.

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