Authors: Kunal Mukjerjee
My Magical Palace
a joint venture with
Dedicated to people everywhere who
break the rules to follow their heart,
Linda Watanabe McFerrin
and my parents Durga and Parijat
‘Don’t forget love;
it will give you all the madness you need
to unfurl yourself across
– Mirabai (1498–1550)
Love Poems from God
by Daniel Ladinsky)
I dreamt of my magical palace again last night. I glided over the marble floors and through locked rooms, my body light and ethereal. I heard the shrill cries of lapwings and koels as they rose in black clouds from the canopy of gulmohar trees, warning me that I must leave. I felt a deep sigh from the very heart of the palace walls, and in one last shudder, the stately pillars and rooms, the exquisite trees and flowers all vanished. I cried out, my arms reaching out to the receding walls. The darkness of despair engulfed me. Hot tears burst through a clenched fist in my chest. I felt a wrenching sense of loss as Andrew shook me awake.
Saturday morning. San Francisco.
‘Rahul,’ Andrew murmured, ‘are you having nightmares again?’ His arm draped protectively around me as he squeezed hard. He kissed the back of my neck, holding me tight. I felt the warmth of his body as he snuggled closer.
I sat up, my head in my hands.
‘What is it?’ he asked, shaking his head. ‘You were so distant at dinner. I wanted to ask you if you’d had a bad day at work, but figured I’d give you some space.’
I looked at the digital face of the alarm clock. It was 6 a.m. The foghorn sounded forlorn, booming across North Beach and wafting up Russian Hill. The rumble of an early cable car, soon to be filled with tourists on their summer vacation, shook the apartment building on its way from the wharf on its first run of the day.
Andrew put his hand on my knee as my feet hit the hardwood floors with a thump. His fingers caressed my skin. Would he understand? I felt myself start to numb. I thought about the email from my mother in Bombay that I’d received just before leaving work the day before. It had weighed on my mind all evening and stirred old memories.
‘Dear beta,’ it said. ‘We are getting old. It is time we saw the face of our grandchild before we die. Your father and I are healthy by the grace of God. But before we close our eyes, we would like to see you settle down. How I wish you would come back here, but you have decided to settle in America. Here is a picture of a lovely girl we met—Anu. She reminded me of Mallika. She was visiting her relatives in Bombay recently. Remember how Mallika wore her hair down to her waist, and that beautiful smile of hers? I thought of her when I met Anu. And we ran into Dr Bose at the supermarket. She said that Shubho’s wife has divorced him. Such a lovely boy—so unfortunate that his marriage has ended this way. Anu lives in San Jose with her uncle, Dr Ganguly. They want to visit you on Sunday. I hope you will be able to meet her. I am sure you will like her a lot …’
I turned on the lamp. Colonel Uncle and Claudio smiled at me from the photograph framed on my dresser. I reached out and touched their faces, then turned to look at Andrew. He looked very boyish, squinting in the sudden brightness. The tips of his early morning beard glinted blond in the light. He looked so beautiful that I had a sudden desire to put my head in his lap and cry.
‘My parents want me to get married,’ I said abruptly.
‘What?’ Andrew sat up. ‘What do you mean? I thought … Don’t they know you’re gay?’
‘Well … no,’ I said. ‘Not exactly. They used to ask me to meet girls they had picked before I met you. You know, for an arranged marriage. They would be happy if I found someone myself, but since I wasn’t making any effort to get married on my own, they consider it their duty as parents. I always met the girls they picked and then told them I didn’t think we’d be compatible. It seemed to work. But then this
email arrived yesterday … The girl they’ve picked, Anu, and her uncle would like to visit on Sunday evening.’ I paused, assessing the rising panic in Andrew’s eyes, then breathed deep and took the plunge. ‘I’m very sorry, Andrew, but can you please leave for the evening? I promise I’ll get them off my back quickly, and then you can come back …’
Andrew jumped off the bed, his eyes shining with unshed tears. He was struggling for words. ‘I … Do you know how much it hurts to hear you say that? You’re my lover, for God’s sake, my partner for life!’ He kicked the nightstand and the force sent a little statue of Ganesh crashing to the floor. ‘Well, screw you,’ he said after a while. ‘How can you ask me to make myself invisible, even for an evening? You are not out to your parents! I don’t believe this. You know what I’ve been through. If I had known this, I would never have moved in with you last month. Are you so ashamed of me that you can’t tell your family that you have someone who loves you and adores you? Or are you ashamed of yourself? Are you going to hide all these pictures of us too?’ Flying in an angry arc across the top of the credenza, his hand swept all the carefully arranged pictures of us, and they crashed to the floor.
‘No, it’s not like that …’ I tried to explain, but then stopped. He would never get it, I thought bitterly. It was easy for him to live his life openly. His parents were divorced. They had broken his heart as a child and there was very little he could do to earn their disapproval. No matter how I explained this, it wouldn’t be good enough for him.
Choosing my words carefully, I said, ‘I love you, Andrew. Of course I do. But you don’t understand—my parents are not American. They would never understand if I told them I was gay …’ My breath caught in my throat as a familiar
fear rose at the ominous words. I reached out to Andrew, but he moved away, nostrils flaring and lips set in a tight line above his stubborn chin.
‘Look, Rahul,’ he said softly, ‘I understand that we all have issues, but we need to deal with them. I had mine and dealt with them. Why can’t you?’
I shook my head. How could I make him understand the shame and humiliation of being an outsider and outcaste in the society I’d grown up in, a society where the individual comes last?
Annoyed by my reluctance, he said, ‘I need some space to think.’ He walked out of the room, slamming the door shut.
I sat on the bed wishing I had not asked him to leave this way. I’d had no idea that he would be so upset and hurt. We had been living together for barely a month, although we had been together for six months before that—and I had managed to avoid such a situation so far. I knew that there was no point in trying to talk to him right then. Andrew needed his space when he was upset.
After what seemed like aeons, Andrew came back.
‘Wow, Rahul. I never saw this coming. It just doesn’t feel right. I know something is up … You’re always hiding what is going on,’ he said, his voice shaking. ‘You cry in your sleep and are in a foul mood all morning afterwards. What is bothering you? Am I a dirty secret that you have hidden from your world?’
‘Andrew, please stop,’ I begged. My carefully constructed life was falling apart. I felt thirteen again, powerless against the tide of life. I was back in my seventh-grade classroom.
‘Well, you know what? I don’t need to take this crap from anyone, least of all from you—the man I love and want to
spend the rest of my life with.’ Andrew turned away, his blue eyes filled with pain. ‘I’ll leave. But I’m not coming back. Either you’re in this relationship with me, fully and openly, or we are finished.’
‘Where are you going? Please, Andrew, don’t leave!’ My voice broke as he grabbed a bag and started pulling out clothes from the closet. Andrew didn’t answer. He shoved the clothes into the bag as he ran out, tripping at the door.
I stood there, paralysed. The door shut with a bang and I heard his footsteps receding down the hallway. The hum of the lift started and ceased and the accordion doors shut with a clang. I heard it start its descent to the lobby.
I lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, not able to believe that he had actually left like this. I had not meant to hurt him. I felt the old ache rise within me—the pain of losing Shubho. Once again, I was an adolescent in love, and I could do nothing to stop the love of my life from leaving me.
Saturday afternoon. San Francisco.
I had called Andrew several times, but he hadn’t answered the phone. The last time I tried calling, it was switched off. ‘Andrew Borgese. Leave a message and I will call you back.’ His clipped accent offered little comfort.
The day crawled by. I dozed on and off, unable to move. In my dream, I saw the Nizam’s grandmother screaming as she saw a dead bat lying on the floor of the palace. Then the air was thick with flying bats and shreds of their bloodstained skin.
I saw Mallika, her face bruised and bleeding, her arms stretched out to me, begging for help as I stood frozen. I
woke up heaving dry sobs, missing Andrew’s comforting embrace. Desolate, I dialled his number again, hoping that he would pick up.
‘Hello?’ Andrew’s voice was subdued.
‘Baby, it’s me.’
‘Baby, come home please.’ My voice cracked with emotion. ‘Please come home. I’ll tell you about the nightmares, about the things that happened many years ago, the things that make me. I’ll tell you how I learnt to hide myself from the world so I wouldn’t get into trouble.’
‘Rahul,’ Andrew said, his voice wary, ‘on one condition— that you’ll tell me everything. There can be no more secrets between us. Otherwise, we cannot be together. I love you, but I’ve been through too much hell coming out of the closet. I can’t be with you if your life is a lie.’
‘Where are you?’
‘At the Travelodge Motel, on Lombard Street.’
‘Come home? Please?’
‘Tell me your story first.’
‘All right.’ I sighed, trying to compose myself. He wasn’t going to come home until I’d told him everything, I realized. ‘But I wish you could hear it from me in person …’ I took a deep breath as I readied myself to tell him what I hadn’t ever told a soul.
‘I need to tell you first about the amazing place where I grew up. It’s where I learnt to live and love,’ I said.
‘You know that I grew up in Hyderabad. What I’ve never told you is that I grew up in a palace called Mint House. It was a grand old house … Every time I came up the driveway and saw the imposing facade, the Corinthian pillars rising to
the sky, the royal gardens, the elegantly laid out flowerbeds and orchards, I felt like a prince … A real prince, not the prince of my father’s mockery. “Prince of Kuchh Bhi Nahi State, the Prince of the Kingdom of Nothing,” he’d say, and it would annoy the hell out of me. But I was so happy, enjoying the wonders of that palace and its grounds …’
‘Hold on, Rahul. Why are you telling me about this place? I want to know what happened to
‘I have to tell you about Mint House before anything else—it sort of ties everything together.’
‘Oh, okay,’ Andrew said. ‘Was it a real palace? How big was it? How many acres, how many rooms?’ My dear Andrew could be such an American—obsessed with statistics and numbers. ‘I had no idea you came from such a privileged background.’