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Thursday, October 21, 2010

A life of royalty Vs sexuality

IIPM Prof Rajita Chaudhuri: The New Age Woman

He claims to be the first ever royal to come out. And yet, for Manvendra Singh Gohil, the royal descent did little to mitigate the social trauma associated with a homosexual identity. The Gay Prince of Rajpipla, his intrepid confidence and sporting sense of humour every bit in place, shares his story with Spriha Srivastava

Rajpipla is a small town in Gujarat, about two and a half hours ahead of Baroda. Its culture and heritage strongly intact, Rajpipla still holds the throne of the 600-year-old Gohil dynasty on a pedestal. Till some years back, this princely town was comparatively unknown and insignificant when pitched against the other bustling and economically progressive cities of India. But since 2006, Rajpipla has garnered fame and attention, mostly credited to the heir of its royal dynasty, Prince Manvendra.

Sans inhibitions about answering personal questions, and without the slightest hesitation in sharing anecdotes about his romantic relationships, the gay Prince of Rajpipla talks about it all with a sprinkle of humour. Seated in his palace, as I juggled with euphemisms while articulating my questions, the Prince generously took the lead to break the ice, allowing me to get comfortable discussing his sexuality. Prince Manvendra did his schooling from Bombay Scottish, Mumbai, and his childhood was spent shuttling between Mumbai and Rajpipla. “In school I had a lot of girlfriends, that’s why my parents were shocked to know I was gay!” exclaimed Manvendra and broke into a hearty laugh. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, life would have been a smooth journey for Manvendra, but for the struggle, for him and his dear ones, to reconcile to his sexuality. “My adolescent years brought me a lot of trouble. I started noticing differences between myself and the other boys. To begin with, I was not sporty at all. So I was constantly bullied. Also, the lack of a friend circle made it difficult for me to share what was going on in my mind. I had girlfriends but I was not sexually attracted to them,” recalled Manvendra. Like in most other royal families, Manvendra and his sister were raised by governesses, which distanced him from his parents. Although they lived together in Mumbai, the discomfort of sharing his feelings with them pent up emotions about his sexual dilemma inside him. “At that time, I couldn’t give a name to what I felt. At an age when everyone likes girls, I was attracted to the male servants in my house. So I didn’t know what was going wrong. I was confused.”

Today, in the post-media boom era of the Internet and virtual social networking, alienation as experienced by the Prince is fairly avoidable. It’s because of this awareness that today homosexuals have a legal existence (according to Section 377) in the society, and are not ostracised and abused like in the past.

Manvendra’s first sexual brush was with a servant during his early teens. “My grandmother had appointed him as my caretaker. Both of us became very close which led us to experiment with each other’s bodies. We had a physical relationship and we liked the idea of being together,” said the Prince. But even then, he thought this to be a temporary phase and believed the feeling would soon go away.

Lean and tall, dressed in kurta pyjama, the Prince took me around the palace museums where he introduced me to the palace helpers. Prince Manvendra greeted them all with a smile and exchanged pleasantries in Gujarati. He enquired if his parents (Maharaja Raghubir Singh and Maharani Rukmani Devi) were in the palace and then turned to me and said, “I travel a lot and my father does not use a mobile phone. So we don’t usually know each other’s whereabouts. In fact, I still haven’t seen my father’s room completely. He has a gym, I’ve heard.”

Like most other families faced by such announcements, the royal family of Rajpipla was shocked to know that Manvendra was gay. The ignominy, they thought, was greater on account of being public figures and the first citizens of the town. To prevent these waves of shock from traveling through generations, Prince Manvendra’s parents decided to disown him. “My coming out was like a volcanic eruption. I had come out in the media without consulting my parents and I was told that there was havoc in the palace. My parents could see that this guy is just not going to stop. So the best way that they thought was to disinherit me from the royalty.” Then, in his characteristic joviality, he added, “Too bad their strategy backfired! According to the law, the heir of a royal family can’t be disinherited from ancestral property.” A confrontation with his parents happened only after three months when Manvendra clearly explained himself to them. “Oh! What not did they try to ‘cure’ me! I was sent to doctors, tantriks, sadhus etc. Sometimes suggestions of joining a hijra group would also roll past my ears. I patiently did all that my parents wanted because I wanted them to be satisfied.” On enquiring about the reaction of the people of Rajpipla, Manvendra said, “It came as a pleasant surprise that they supported me more than my parents. They love me, perhaps because I have always been involved with them.”

It’s said that more than 80% of gays in India succumb to the pressure from their parents and end up marrying for the sake of keeping up a fa├žade of normalcy. Marriage happens to be one of the most painful consequences of sexual ambiguity, and Manvendra too was a victim. “I would say it was more painful for my ex-wife. I got married in 1991 and had thought that my attraction to men would die once I get married, but our marriage never got consummated. My wife would keep crying and think that I had an affair. And I could not understand why I wasn’t sexually attracted to her. In our family, people would enquire about ‘good news’ and the poor thing couldn’t even say ‘forget about good news, I’m still a virgin’.” With a shy smile, Manvendra remembered, “When we would watch movies, I would be more interested in Salman Khan or Aamir Khan than the heroines!” Within 15 months of the marriage, they got divorced, which is when he realised that it was “high time that he explored his sexuality. This failure was a huge blow to me”. “I still remember her parting words –‘Look, you spoilt my life by getting married to me. Please don’t do this to anyone else.’ We still don’t talk. I always prayed for her marriage because re-marriage is very tough in royal families. Now she is happily married.”

After his divorce, Manvendra started to read about homosexuality. He chanced upon a magazine for homosexuals called Bombay Dost through which he learned about Ashok Row Kavi, the first person ever to have revealed his sexual identity in public (in 1986), and wanted to get in touch with him. He eventually did, and Ashok volunteered to become his mentor. “I met him in 1995, when I was about 26 years old, at a gay party,” Manvendra recalled. “Ashok made me comfortable about my sexuality, washed away the guilt from my mind, trained me to become a gay counselor and taught me to face the media.” This encouragement pushed Manvendra to break out from his closeted life and tell the world about himself. And soon Rajpipla became famous as the home of the Gay Prince.

Slowly, Manvendra started involving himself with the gay community to fight for their rights. He founded the Lakshya Trust, an NGO dedicated to homosexuals. Lakshya has a very close-knit group of gay individuals working for causes such as generating AIDS awareness, counseling, and fighting against gay sexual abuse, which is the most challenging chore. It’s ruthless when some choose to make gay men a prey to their sexual desperation. In fact, many cases of gay abuse are conveniently swept under the carpet because the crime is often committed by the police. On speaking about this with Manvendra, he shared incidents when his people from Lakshya were harassed by the police and had to give in to forced sex. On a lighter note, he spoke of his experience on Oprah Winfrey’s show. “She asked me if I ever feared getting imprisoned. She wasn’t clear about the situation of homosexuals in India. So I told her that I would have loved it if a policeman took me in because I love men in uniform. One of my fantasies would come true if that happened!” Just then one of his palace helpers entered the room. Following his exit, Manvendra softly said, “He’s on my flirt list,” and smiled. I then decided to ask him about his relationships, and the Prince said that he did have his share of heartbreaks. “I have had two relationships. One was an NRI and belonged to my caste. My parents had also met him. But both the relationships didn’t work out because I realised that both the men were more interested in my fortune and status. It’s only this situation that makes me wish that I was a commoner. It’s tough to find true love,” expressed Manvendra.

So who is Prince Manavendra’s kind of guy? “Oh! I don’t like the body builder type. I don’t like the sophisticated ones. I don’t like the perfumed suited-booted guys. I like the casual, soft kind of guys. And does he have marriage plans on his mind? “It’s a far-fetched idea”, he said. “We are still struggling to get the legal issues straightened up. It’s still lingering in the Supreme Court. Besides, gay marriage acceptance in society is very difficult. My marriage will be a national issue and I don’t want it to be looked down upon. I’m cool with live-in relationships though.” Who would carry forward the legacy of the Gohil dynasty, was my next question. “My father had expressed his insecurities about family lineage and so did the people of Rajpipla. I eventually plan to adopt a child from our family. Our own 650-year-old dynasty’s first ruler was adopted,” he shared.

Manvendra introduced vermiculture in Rajpipla, and is a connoisseur of music. He spends his free time playing the harmonium and participates in live performances as well. But gay activism remains his priority. His status in the society has made Manvendra an idol for gays who wouldn’t have ever mustered the courage to look the world in the eye. Would the Gay Prince of Rajpipla have been happier leading an unknown gay life? “I always tell myself that I was destined to be a part of royal family and be gay so that I could be a voice for other gay men”, and then smilingly added, “I think I couldn’t have asked for anything better!”

Spriha Srivastava

For more articles, Click on IIPM Article.

Source : IIPM Editorial, 2010.

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

For More IIPM Info, Visit below mentioned IIPM articles.
IIPM Prof. Rajita Chaudhuri's Website
IIPM’s Management Consulting Arm - Planman Consulting
IIPM Lucknow – News article in Economic Times and Times of India
Arindam Chaudhuri (IIPM Dean) – ‘Every human being is a diamond’
Arindam Chaudhuri – Everything is not in our hands

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