Prince is out but not down
AS a maharajah’s son, Manvendra Singh Gohil grew up in a bubble of prestige and privilege, surrounded by hangers-on who treated him so reverentially that he was 15 before he crossed a street by himself.
So the public snubs and rejection of the last nine months have been a new experience. Yet the mild-mannered Gohil couldn’t be more content.
At last, he says, he is living an honest life -- albeit one that has touched off a scandal in the royal house of Rajpipla, one of India’s former princely states. Last March, he revealed a lifelong secret to a local newspaper, which promptly splashed it on the front page.
“The headline was: ‘The Prince of Rajpipla Declares That He’s a Homosexual,’ ” Gohil said with a rueful chuckle. “The newspaper sold like hotcakes.”
In the uproar that followed, disgusted residents in Gohil’s hometown flung his photograph onto a bonfire.
His parents publicly disowned their only son, printing notices in the press that he was cut off as heir because of his involvement in “activities unacceptable to society.” Gohil’s mother has threatened contempt proceedings against anyone who refers to him as her son.
For scandal-mongers, the tale of India’s gay prince is an irresistibly juicy affair full of details worthy of a tabloid tell-all: his teenage affair with a servant boy, a sexless marriage to a minor princess, a nervous breakdown.
For Gohil, his very public unmasking has brought him a bully pulpit from which to speak out against a law that makes him not just a pariah of noble birth but also a common criminal.
Here in the world’s largest democracy, home to 1.1 billion people, sex between two people of the same gender remains a punishable offense. Decades after India threw off the yoke of British rule, the country still clings to a Victorian-era statute established by its colonial masters nearly 150 years ago, which demands up to life in prison for anyone committing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”
In practice, few prosecutions are brought to court. But reports abound of police using the law to harass and blackmail gay men and lesbians.
Human rights advocates, lawyers groups and the government’s AIDS coordinator are lobbying for repeal or revision of the law. In September, dozens of Indian luminaries, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and author Vikram Seth, added their voices to the campaign. Activists are guardedly hopeful about the chances of a legal challenge now pending before the Delhi High Court. A hearing is scheduled for this month.
But even should they succeed, changing attitudes will prove a far harder task.
Despite India’s high-tech wizardry and its rising affluence, this remains a highly conservative and conformist society where most young people undergo arranged marriages, the pressure to produce children is enormous and no gay role models or TV shows like “Will & Grace” exist to offer a hint of an alternative.
Those who feel different learn to keep it to themselves -- and to feel guilt-stricken about it.
“It’s not uncommon among the young people we work with to ask, ‘Is there a medicine that can make me stop feeling this way?’ ” said Anjali Gopalan of the Naz Foundation, an AIDS organization that has taken a leading role in the fight to decriminalize homosexuality. “The law compounds all of this. It creates an environment for people to feel like this.”
The criminalization of homosexuality makes it difficult to set up social venues where gays can meet. Even in the nation’s capital, New Delhi, a thriving metropolis of 15 million people, there are only two bars that host furtive, word-of-mouth gay nights just once a week, usually under the protective guise of a “private party” for some fictitious person. Those nights are packed.
GOHIL, 41, would seem an unlikely spokesman for bucking the system, one from which he has benefited handsomely.
Although India’s royal families were stripped of formal political power after the nation’s independence in 1947, many retain enormous wealth and influence in their former fiefdoms, as smiling ribbon-cutters and patrons of the arts, education and charitable work.
Gohil’s parents, the maharajah and maharani of Rajpipla, a predominantly agricultural town of about 70,000 people in the western state of Gujarat, are the community’s biggest landowners and have several palaces to their name, including a majestic, salmon-pink creation, complete with columns and balconies, that was Gohil’s home when he was a toddler. (It’s now a hotel owned by the family.)
He lived a cocooned existence there and at the family residence in Mumbai, spending his childhood absorbing the finer points of royal protocol and etiquette, attending the finest schools and being waited on hand and foot.
“It was so luxurious that even a glass of water I didn’t have to go and get for myself,” he said.
By age 12, Gohil had already been invited to be guest of honor at a local school event. Around the same time, he began sensing that something besides his aristocratic background set him apart from his peers.
“Somewhere inside me I felt I was different than others,” he said in an interview at his office here in Vadodara, about 1 1/2 hours from Rajpipla. “When I came to the age where you develop sexual attraction to the opposite sex, I had the feeling that I’m not attracted to the opposite sex but the same sex.”
In India, talk of such intimate matters is taboo. At school, sex education for Gohil consisted of an embarrassed teacher telling her students about the sexual development of animals as a stand-in for human sexuality.
Gohil’s first clue to his own identity came from a classmate when he was 14.
“A boy from my class, out of observation or what, one day came and asked me, ‘Are you a homo?’ I had not heard this word before. I said, ‘What? I don’t know,’ ” Gohil recalled. “I went home and looked it up in the dictionary, and it wasn’t there.”
He didn’t have the words to describe his impulses, but as a young teen he found a way to act on them at home with a servant boy his own age, an orphan whom Gohil’s grandmother had taken under her wing. The two boys maintained a secret relationship until they were about 18, Gohil said.
AFTER his graduation from university, the pressure on Gohil to marry mounted as his parents expected their only son to carry on the Rajpipla line and assume his duties as custodian of the family’s royal heritage, which stretches back 600 years.
A suitable wife could manage the household, making sure that the heirlooms, the china and the sumptuous royal costumes were kept up to snuff. Gohil’s father, the maharajah, and his mother, from a royal family in Rajasthan, scouted out potential mates, settling on a princess from the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Gohil, then 25, agreed to the match, which quickly turned out to be a disaster. He felt no physical attraction for his wife and could not consummate their marriage.
Her efforts to seduce him ended in tears. She even dragged Gohil to a doctor, but after 15 humiliating months of their being together yet not together, divorce became the only way out.
As she left, his ex-wife gave Gohil one piece of advice: Never do this to another woman.
But it took years for Gohil to summon the nerve to contact a well-known gay activist in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. Slowly, the young royal began tiptoeing out of the closet, deepening his involvement in the gay community and becoming an HIV counselor to other homosexual men.
“My parents thought I was in yoga school, but I would be out distributing condoms,” he said.
Nonetheless, the increasing strain of pretending took its toll. His parents were on the hunt for a second wife, and residents in Rajpipla constantly asked Gohil whether he came bearing “good news” whenever he visited from Mumbai, unaware of the activities and friendships he was pursuing.
In 2002, Gohil suffered a nervous breakdown, spending 15 days in the hospital. At the end of it, his sympathetic psychiatrist arranged for his parents, his sister and her husband to come for a family meeting during which, at Gohil’s request, the doctor informed the family of his sexual orientation.
“It was very, very emotional, very disturbing,” he said. “They were all crying. They were still not willing to believe that this thing was true.”
Since then, Gohil has thrown himself into HIV/AIDS work through the Lakshya Trust, an organization he founded in 2000. It was partly to raise the profile of the group that Gohil decided to come out publicly.
His straight friends were shocked to find out he was gay. His gay friends were shocked to find out he’d been married.
For his parents, it was the last straw. He is no longer on speaking terms with his mother. His father, despite disinheriting him, has softened slightly, declaring in a newspaper interview that he had felt pressured by friends and relatives into taking such a drastic step and describing Gohil as “a gifted individual” and “a good son.” The two men still speak occasionally, but their conversations are awkward.
Gohil believes that his parents cannot legally prevent ancestral possessions from passing into his hands. Geeta Luthra, a leading civil lawyer in New Delhi, agrees.
“If it’s ancestral property, then in India ... nobody can disinherit you,” she said. “Custom is a part of the law in India, and the custom among princely families is the principle of primogeniture. So you can’t deprive him” of his inheritance.
Despite the controversy surrounding his coming-out, Gohil has continued to receive invitations to attend functions in his royal capacity. During the recent interview, Gohil happily showed off a photo of himself in traditional regalia: an elegant ivory suit on his slender frame, a large red turban complete with ostrich feather on his head, a double strand of pearls around his neck and a broad smile on his face, though whether it was out of the general Indian love of pageantry or a personal sense of fabulousness is hard to tell.
AN introvert by nature, Gohil enjoys nothing more than quiet time on his farm on the outskirts of Rajpipla, where he cultivates a passion for organic farming -- his primary source of income -- and practices the harmonium.
He says he has “no regrets at all” over his decisions or the very public consequences that followed.
Rather, he has finally been able to put on a little weight, offers for dates have started coming in and the Lakshya Trust just won an award from the United Nations. Representatives of the media keep calling, and a cheerful, newly liberated Gohil appears to enjoy telling his story.
To those in Rajpipla who might still harbor reservations about their patron-in-waiting, he waves an indifferent hand.
“They cannot get a prince on hire. I am the prince, and whether I am gay or not gay is hardly the issue,” Gohil said. “I’m the only son -- there are no cousins or brothers they can go to. They have to come back to me.”