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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 28, Dated July 18, 2009
CULTURE & SOCIETY  
gay rights

Such A Long Journey

From blighted childhood to his emergence as an icon, Manvendra Singh Gohil, India’s first openly gay royal, tells MANJULA NARAYAN about his extraordinary life

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Love lockdown Prajwal Miskin (left) and Manvendra Singh Gohil
Photos: DEEPAK SALVI

TAKING THE steps two at a time to Manvendra Singh Gohil, Prince of Rajpipla’s flat in the Mumbai suburb of Malad, you are gripped by a sense of déjà vu. Then, just as India’s first royal to have come out as a practising homosexual answers the doorbell, you remember your aunt once lived in the same building. Gay icon and relentless activist for issues related to HIV/AIDS, 44-year-old Manvendra Singh doesn’t look at all aunt-like. A tall, striking man dressed in a churidar suit, diamond studs in his ears and a large vermillion tilak, he commands instant respect, and for a brief disorienting Return-to-the-Raj moment you wonder if you should curtesy over the proffered hand or shake it. Manvendra resolves the issue by clasping your hand and leading you into the cosy home he shares with 27-year-old boyfriend Prajwal Miskin.

A product manager with a pharma company, Miskin is a neatly built young man with an easy charm who could be a chick magnet if he were so inclined. You turn with a mock sigh of regret towards a wall plastered with pictures of muscular men in various states of undress. “That’s to sensitise visitors to the fact that this is a gay house,” says Manvendra, adding, only half tongue-in-cheek, that “when delivery boys arrive, we purposely invite them right in so they can see everything”. The image of a delivery boy, hot off his motorbike, pondering issues of sexuality as he waits to be paid for a 12” pizza and perhaps arriving at his own eureka moment, makes you laugh out loud.

When he was younger, the prince himself didn’t have any posters to guide him to an awareness of just how ‘different’ he was.

“I was 12 when I realised that, unlike the other boys at Bombay Scottish school in Mumbai, I didn’t find girls sexually attractive. Instead, I had crushes on my masters and male classmates,” says Manvendra, whose childhood was blighted by a sense of emotional deprivation.

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“In royal families, our relationship with our parents is very formal. We aren’t allowed to meet each other’s gaze. They address me as ‘the prince’ and I address them as ‘Their Highnesses’,” he says, revealing that until he was nine he believed his governess was his mother. Put on an isolating pedestal as the royal heir, he was always surrounded by a legion of protective servants. “As a result, I had no friends at school. I couldn’t confide in anyone,” he says. Unsurprisingly, his first sexual experiences were with a servant boy.

“I grew up thinking I was the only one who felt this way, that this was a temporary experimental phase in my life,” he says, adding that when he willingly traipsed into a marriage at 25 with Chandrika, princess of Jhabua, he sincerely believed “it would make me behave like a straight person”. He got along well with his new wife but never well enough to consummate the marriage. Fifteen months after they were married, the union was annulled.

“It was a turning point. I realised there was something ‘wrong’ with me, that I needed to discover myself,” he says. He got in touch with pioneering gay activist Ashok Row Kavi and, in 1995, became involved with the Humsafar Trust, the country’s first organisation working with gay men. Encouraged by Row Kavi, Manvendra set up Lakshya, which now employs 120 doctors, counselors and lab technicians and reaches out to homosexual men in Vadodara, Ahmedabad and Rajkot. Finally emotionally fulfilled, Manvendra felt emboldened enough to rip through the purdah of false proprieties that had kept his gay persona a secret.

“When I came out in March 2006, not many people knew about HIV/AIDS, let alone homosexuality. I was sure it would draw attention to these issues,” he says. But even in his wildest dreams Manvendra couldn’t have predicted the impact of his act of exasperated honesty. Members of his Rajput community burnt his photographs. His parents moved to disinherit him and the state’s VHP unit made threatening noises.

BUT MANVENDRA Singh really is a modern day warrior. While he didn’t respond to the proposed disinheritance with lawsuits, perhaps because his family loyalties run deep, he dealt with the fundamentalist nuts with a rapier thrust that would have made his ancestors proud: he threatened to out all the closet homosexuals in the VHP.

“So that was the end of that!” he laughs, adding that Hinduism especially has long accepted homosexual culture.

‘People who insist homosexuality is a Western import don’t know what they are saying,’ says Manvendra

“Many of our ancient temples like the ones at Khajuraho, Dahod and Modhera have sculptures depicting homosexuality. Near Ahmedabad, there’s a temple to godess Bahucharaji, a lesbian deity, and the 2,500-year-old Kama Sutra details gay positions. People who insist homosexuality is a Western import don’t know what they are saying,” says Manvendra.

But back to the aptly-coloured pink town of Rajpipla: after the initial shock, the townspeople rallied around their prince. Senior citizens feted him for his honesty and college principals invited him to talk on sexuality. Manvendra emerged as an international gay icon and invitee on the popular Oprah show, and eventually, his parents gathered him once again to their starchy royal bosoms.

Today, Manvendra’s life is packed. Earlier this year he featured in a British reality television show on single princes looking for love. He is constructing an AIDS hospice, planning the country’s first old-age home for gays and working on promoting gay tourism in India. He is also learning to play solo harmonium and encouraging Rajpipla’s farmers to switch to organic fertilisers. And then, of course, there’s Miskin.

Before you step out into Mumbai’s driving rain, you can’t resist asking Manvendra how a gay love story differs from a straight one. “Well, we have the same romantic feelings. The only difference is that the roles of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ are fluid in most cases,” he says, shaking your hand in his stiff royal manner. The loveable Miskin, however, sends you off with a bear hug. Sigh!

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 28, Dated July 18, 2009

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