About your Book:
Haunted by dreams of an unforgettable loss, Rahul, a young man of thirty living in San Francisco, suddenly becomes secretive and withdraws from his partner Andrew. When Andrew discovers that Rahul is still interviewing girls sent by his parents for an arranged marriage, he gives Rahul an ultimatum—stop living a lie, or give up their relationship. In response, Rahul tells Andrew a story. About a boy who lived in a palace. A boy named Rahul.
Set in San Francisco today and in India in the early 1970s, My Magical Palace is a sensitive tale about a boy’s coming of age, and the many hurdles he must cross to heal and find himself.
Targeted Age Group: all ages
Genre: LBGT, young adult, new adult, multicultural
The Book Excerpt:
The next morning, I sat at the breakfast table, worried. The exams were going to start in less than two weeks. It was the end of my first year at the new school and my parents had high expectations of me. I could not wait for the summer vacation, my favorite time of the year, to begin. Breakfast was a long, leisurely affair of parathas, fried eggs, leftover curry and tea that morning. And Ma was allowing us to loll around instead of cleaning the table and wiping it down after we had finished eating.
‘Do you think you are taller than me now?’ Rani asked. I immediately snapped out of my daydream. The magic words had made it competition time again.
Rani and I measured our heights often, sometimes daily. I was convinced that in the summer I would grow at a faster pace than during the rest of the year due to the amount of time I spent each day hanging from the pole set up by my father. The pole was suspended from the rafters of the veranda. Hanging from it, I was about six inches off the ground. Jumping up and grabbing it with both hands, I would let gravity pull me down, occasionally twisting and turning, willing my spine to elongate, vertebra by vertebra. I was sure that if I did it often enough my bones would grow longer and longer until I was as tall as Rani, who had measured a full five-feet-four the last time. I had been trying hard to catch up all through the school year, but I was still five-foot-three.
‘Yes, I am,’ I said in answer to Rani’s question.
‘What if you’re wrong?’ she said.
‘I’m taller than you,’ I said, now feeling less confident. But there was no turning back now.
‘All right. But if you are still shorter than me, you will have to go upstairs. All the way this time. And if there are ghosts of dead members of the royal family, or even the Ghost Who Walks, you will have to face them. Otherwise, I will tell all your friends that you are a cowardy-custard.’ Her face was menacing as she said this, her eyes thin slits. She was leaving me no room to negotiate. I swaggered over to the doorframe where we measured our heights, acting more confident than I felt.
‘Ma,’ I yelled. ‘Please come and measure our heights.’ I did not put it past Rani to doctor the results. I secretly hoped that my mother would skew the measurements in my favor, but she never did.
My mother appeared. ‘Do you think I have no work to do?’ she asked in mock annoyance. I knew that she secretly enjoyed this game of ours. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘You first, Rahul, and then you, Rani. Hurry up, I don’t have all day.’
I stood against a post in the veranda barefoot. Ma placed a ruler on my head, taking care that it was parallel to the floor and perpendicular to the post. She took a pencil, marked the column and wrote my name next to it. Rani hovered suspiciously, making sure that I was not getting an unfair advantage by error or intention. Then it was Rani’s turn. To my mortification, I was still shorter by an inch.
‘I knew it, I knew it!’ Rani jumped up and down in victory as Ma went back to her work. ‘Now you must go upstairs.’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘Yes, you will. You will, or else I will tell Baba that you were asking about shock therapy and also about homos.’ She whispered the last word.
‘All right,’ I conceded as fear descended on me again. ‘Just don’t tell anyone. Swear?’
‘We’ll see,’ she said coyly and ran off.
I dreaded the coming of night that day, when I would have to go upstairs. I knew that Colonel Uncle lived up there. I wondered if he had a wife.
I went to the kitchen. ‘Where is Colonel Uncle’s wife?’ I asked Ma.
‘Colonel Uncle is a confirmed bachelor,’ she answered.
‘What is a confirmed bachelor?’
‘Someone who never marries,’ Ma said in a funny tone that made it clear that bachelors were a set of people quite different from regular people.
‘Why do bachelors not marry?’
‘Usually because of a broken heart. Or if they have waited too long and realized it is too late. But you don’t have to worry about that. Your father and I will find you a lovely bride. Your grandmother found brides for all your uncles and a groom for me. We don’t have any bachelors in our family, so don’t be concerned about becoming one.’ Ma seemed determined to save me from a bachelor’s fate.
‘But what if I don’t want to marry?’ I thought about how I had felt no interest in Dilnaz, and her reaction to my disinterest. What if I did not want to marry when my parents thought it was time? I felt frustrated that I could not share my fears with my mother. I had always felt close to her, but for the first time, I was scared to tell her how different I felt from everyone at school.
‘What is this madness? Everyone marries. You will too,’ Baba said with a note of finality in his voice. He had just arrived home for lunch and I had not realized that he had been listening to our conversation.
‘Why does Colonel Uncle live upstairs?’ I asked my father.
‘Colonel Uncle has lived here for many years. He was a colonel in the army in the days of the Second World War and was highly decorated. The government allocated the upstairs to him before we arrived here. He used to travel a lot earlier, but is here most of the time now.’
‘Do you know who gave you your set of cooking utensils?’ Baba asked Rani, who had just arrived as well.
‘No,’ she said.
‘Colonel Uncle gave it to you when you were a little girl.’
I developed an immediate interest in Colonel Uncle when I heard that he had gifted Rani my favorite toy set—the shining stainless steel miniature cooking utensils including pots and pans, a stove, plates and cutlery.
‘So how was your day at work?’ I would ask Rani when I played with it, bustling around the make-believe kitchen as I ground spices, sautéed vegetables, boiled rice, rolled out perfectly shaped chapatis and created a culinary masterpiece out of thin air, accompanied by a lot of banging and clanging of the utensils.
‘Fine. How was yours? What did you make me?’ she would demand.
‘Oh, I have made pulao, dal, chapatis, curry, sweets and so much more,’ I would explain, ladling out large portions of air and heaping them on the toy plate.
Rani wielded this girlish interest of mine with great political skill whenever she wanted to get me to agree to something. She threatened me at the end of every fight, forcing me to concede defeat, saying, ‘I will tell all your friends that you are a girl and play with my dolls and cooking utensils.’
That evening, after dinner, Rani and I went to the back of the house. I looked up at the iron stairs that spiralled around a metal pole, dark and beautifully wrought. I had never gone past the tenth step before.
‘All right, then, here you go,’ Rani said, handing me the old Eveready family torch and pushing me up the stairs. I clutched the thick, red plastic torch and pushed the button forward. As it slid on with a bump and a click, a watery beam of light shone ahead. The lights around the tennis court were on and might have illuminated my path, but their warm glow was devoured by the inky blackness of the summer night before it reached the stairs. The restless wind blew in the banyan tree, making whooshing sounds. The mango trees shivered in response as dry summer lightning forked through the sky, followed by deafening rolls of thunder. Back and forth, the trees swayed, as if speaking to each other. In my terror, I wondered if they were trying to warn me. I paused and then stopped altogether. Maybe I should just return and call the whole thing off? But I was too proud to back out.
I placed one foot in front of the other, forcing myself to go on. Soon, I had crossed the tenth step. By now, my eyes were used to the semi-darkness and I could make out each step before me. With the torch held in one hand and using my other hand as a guide, I moved up one foot at a time.
‘Are you still climbing or just pretending?’ Rani’s jeering voice floated up from below. I was too busy climbing to answer. My hands were clammy and the torch felt slippery in them. Ahead of me was the first bend of the spiral staircase. Then I walked on to an open terrace covered with twigs, branches and leaves that looked as if they had collected over many years. The gusts of wind caught me off-guard and I staggered for a moment before steadying myself. Leaves churned in little vortexes at my feet and the wind felt cool on my sweat-drenched body. In the dim light of the night sky, I could see that there was a cunningly designed balustrade with urn-shaped railings all around the terrace. The terrace led to a number of darkened doorways. A glow of light came from a window at one end—it must be part of Colonel Uncle’s living quarters, I thought. From where I stood, I could see the dark and cave-like empty rooms, and the smell of bat urine was faint but unmistakable. I gingerly entered one of the abandoned rooms, my feet crunching years and years of accumulated debris, and was assailed by an unbearable stench. I shone the torch around and up at the ceiling. There were hundreds of fruit bats, or flying foxes as we called them, hanging upside down from the beams in the ceiling. Their black faces and snouts looked menacing and I retreated, frightened by the sheer number.
As I backed away, I tripped over some branches and fell. The torch rolled away, its beam illuminating damp walls with peeling plaster in a slow arc. I scrambled to my feet, picked up the torch and ran out to the terrace, my breath coming in short gasps.
I felt something soft and furry against my leg and then someone pulled my shirt. I yelled, trying to get away, and ran into a large urn, which fell over with a nasty crack.
‘Kaun hai?’ A voice cut through the air like a steel whip, asking the intruder to identify himself. A door opened and light streamed out. I was sitting on the ground, next to a furry jute bag and a broken urn. My shirt was torn and a piece was still hooked on a stray wire hanging from the doorframe of the room full of bats.
It was Colonel Uncle. His voice softened when he saw me. ‘Rahul?’ he asked. ‘What is the matter? Come on in. Are you hurt?’
I was so surprised he knew who I was that I could not answer. I got up, feeling sheepish, and followed him.
‘I was up here because I lost a bet with Rani …’ My voice trailed off. ‘And then I saw the bats and thought there was a furry animal and … I am sorry, Colonel Uncle. Please do not tell my father.’
Colonel Uncle was dressed in a gorgeous silk gown. The design was very intricate and reminded me of some tapestry I had once seen. He said kindly, ‘No, I will not tell your father. Let me see if you have any cuts that need cleaning.’
I looked around. The room was beautiful, with the walls painted a warm beige color. The ceiling was high and vaulted just like the rooms downstairs and an ornate chandelier hung in the middle. The door that opened to the terrace let in a gust of wind and the chandelier swayed gently in the breeze, the crystals making a soft, tinkling sound. The furniture in the room was very old and the dark wood and exquisite upholstery caught my eyes. Everything looked shiny and clean. A dark-blue Persian carpet covered the floor.
‘I hope I have none, and if I do, please don’t use tincture of iodine …’ My voice became faint at the thought of the burning sensation that the tincture would cause. It was the school nurse’s favorite first-aid medicine and I hated it, preferring the coolness of Mercurochrome when applied on cuts and wounds.
Colonel Uncle laughed. ‘Looks like you only have some scratches on your palms and knees,’ he said. ‘When I was in the army, we did not even have tincture of iodine. The doctors had to amputate arms and legs without any anesthesia.’
I shivered. ‘My father told me you fought in the Second World War. Is that true? Is that when you did not have anesthesia?’
Colonel Uncle’s voice grew grave as he said, ‘Yes.’ He was quiet for a few moments, not volunteering any information about the war. But I persisted, thinking of the war in Italy, of villas and gardens and Venice.
‘Oh, you are so lucky!’ I exclaimed. ‘Did you ever ride in a gondola in a Venetian canal? And what about the statue—Michelangelo’s David? Did you see it? And the Sistine Chapel? I wish I could go to Italy. I learnt all about it in school.’ Meeting someone who could tell me about the wonders of Italy I had only read about in books was too exciting for me and I ignored Colonel Uncle’s serious expression.
‘The Italy you study about in school did not really exist when I was there. I was only twenty-one years old and the British sent me from here to fight in the war as part of the British Army. It was a difficult time. Several of my friends died. I was very lucky. Nothing is ever fun in the time of war.’
I pointed to the marble bust of Apollo on his dressing table. ‘Is that from Italy?’ I asked.
‘Yes, it is one of the two things I have left. I gave away most of the things I had to my friends many years ago. In those days, wealthy Italian families abandoned their possessions. One family in particular preferred to give me some of their family heirlooms. They did not want the Germans to get their hands on them.’
‘What else do you still have?’ I asked.
‘This picture,’ Colonel Uncle said. It was a sepia print, brown and discolored, set in a leather frame. The leather was dark brown and covered with a fine web of cracks. Colonel Uncle picked it up from the marble-topped table and brushed the cuff of his sleeve across the front of the frame. I looked at the picture. I saw Colonel Uncle, barely recognizable. His arm was wrapped around the shoulders of another handsome young man and they were looking at each other and laughing. They were dressed in army uniforms, the British insignia clearly visible on Colonel Uncle’s uniform. I stared with fascination at the young man in the picture. He had short, dark hair and his smile was radiant. He looked rebellious and wore a devil-may-care expression like James Dean. Like in the poster in Rani’s room, a cigarette was hanging rakishly from his lips.
‘Who is this?’ I asked.
‘That is Claudio. My friend.’ Colonel Uncle saw me looking at Claudio’s picture with interest and added with a hint of laughter: ‘He looks like James Dean, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I said, unable to hide my admiration. ‘Where is he now? Did he die in the war?’
‘No, he is alive,’ Colonel Uncle said, laughing. ‘He is a very good friend of mine and we write to each other a lot. He lives in Montepulciano with his wife and children.’
‘Why did you not stay in Italy?’ I asked.
‘The war was over. I had to leave.’ He was quiet for a second as he placed the picture back. ‘So why did you run out of the room on the terrace in such a panic?’ Colonel Uncle enquired.
‘I am very scared of the dark. Rani made a bet with me. I lost. So I had to come upstairs. Wait till she finds out I saw your sitting room! Anyway, I saw the bats hanging from the ceiling and suddenly got scared.’
‘Rahul, there is no reason to be scared of bats, you know.’
‘I know, I know! My mother told me the same thing, but then I thought there was a ghost who was pulling on my shirt.’
I felt guilty suddenly about the jokes we had made about uncle by calling him ‘The Ghost Who Walks’. Just like Phantom in the comics, Colonel Uncle was proving to be very wise and capable.
‘Mrs. Firdausi killed a bat downstairs yesterday. It probably lived up here,’ I said angrily. ‘She said that bats are dirty and strange creatures that get caught in long hair and bite.’
‘That is one of the oldest myths in the world.’
‘I thought all myths were lovely,’ I said, thinking of all the beautiful Greek myths I had read.
‘Some myths are beautiful, like the myths about Goddess Durga and Goddess Kali. Others are not so inspiring and are created in ignorance.’
Colonel Uncle was not smiling any more. ‘Fear and ignorance are our biggest enemies. They blind us to the truth, make us hate those who are different.’ He looked at the photo again and carefully adjusted it in its place.
‘Is it true that bats are blind?’ I asked. ‘Rani says so. Then how can they fly?’
‘By using sonar. Inside their brain—that tiny little bat brain—is a sonar device that is constantly sensing the world of objects. That is why a bat would never get stuck in someone’s hair, because it would avoid it easily, given its highly precise sonar system.’
I felt a surge of anger again at Mrs. Firdausi.
‘And bats eat many times their body weight in insects, like those annoying mosquitoes,’ Colonel Uncle added. Then he looked at his watch and said, ‘It is almost ten. Your parents are probably getting worried about you. I will walk you downstairs.’
‘Please do not tell my father I was up here,’ I begged him again.
‘Don’t worry. This will be our little secret. You can visit any time you want. I have been travelling to my family home in Rajasthan to take care of the estate for the past few years, but I will be here a lot more in the future. You will find me almost any time you visit.’ Colonel Uncle smiled and I felt comforted. He walked me downstairs, using the other flight of stairs that led to a separate locked door, which was his private entrance.
Rani was beside herself with worry by the time I found her.
‘Where were you and what were you doing up there?’ she demanded. ‘I almost told Ma and Baba. Of course, they would have been furious! So, what is it like upstairs?’
‘Oh, wouldn’t you love to know! If you never tell anyone that I play with your kitchen toy set, I will tell you.’
Rani hesitated. Her eyes glittered and she said, ‘I am not interested.’
‘Fine. Now you will never know what Colonel Uncle showed me,’ I said airily as I walked away, feeling a rare sense of power in our never-ending struggle for the upper hand.
KUNAL MUKHERJEE is a San Francisco based poet and writer. Originally from West Bengal, he was raised in Hyderabad, India. He holds a Master’s degree in Physics, has done postgraduate work in Energy Studies and has worked as a restaurateur and a manager of information technology.
To learn more, please visit: http://kunalmukherjee.com