My Magical Palace
Harper Collins Publishers India
Rs. 399 pp 374
Growing up in the early 1970s, Rahul has two ambitions: to come first in class and to never let anyone discover he wants to kiss boys. Some two decades later, Rahul has moved to San Francisco where, though he lives with Andrew, he remains crippled by the fear of disappointing his parents, and agrees to meet the suitable girls they keep finding him. When Andrew protests, Rahul experiences a kind of delayed coming of age by telling his American lover about the two years in Hyderabad that taught him the dangers of illicit love and the power of convention.
The actual love story in My Magical Palace, though, isn’t Rahul’s; it’s Mallika Banerjee’s. College-going Mallika makes the mistake of falling in love with a Muslim boy; and by juxtaposing the violent prohibition on their alliance with the dread of discovery in Rahul’s head, Kunal Mukherjee makes the always-relevant point that what’s acceptable or not has little to do with intrinsic worth and much to do with external context.
If the moral of the tale — “to follow one’s heart, one has to break the rules sometimes” — sounds a little sentimental, well, it is; but then, sentimentality — even innocence — runs through Mukherjee’s first novel, set as it is in a world of home-made pickles, Enid Blyton stories, and outings to movie halls with names like Roxie. These are perfect foils for the catastrophe of forbidden love — remember The God of Small Things? — when the innocence, the nostalgia carries a persistent undertone: the magical palace is also a prison. Mukherjee tells his story in a straightforward, agreeable style, though his dialogue tends towards the clunky — as if the characters were reading their lines aloud on an amateur stage — and he has a weakness for exposition. The more interesting question, though, is how to read Mukherjee’s inclination towards happy endings. By giving Rahul an Andrew to live with and a San Francisco to live in, Mukherjee reflects one undeniable political reality — that homosexuality is increasingly acceptable — and implies another — that the world is (or can ‘progress’ to become) more accepting of transgression. Tragic love, on the other hand, isn’t only a more powerful dramatic trope, but it’s tragedy — making the reader think, “Why did it have to end that way?” — that turns love into potent political critique. Mukherjee nods in this direction when Rahul tells Andrew how, “everything was quite different in those days. I mean everything... No call centres, no outsourcing operations! Society was segregated... And some things haven’t changed — we still have honour killings.”
“Yeah, but that’s another story.”
It is, but it also isn’t. That’s the tragedy.
Parvati Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and other Stories of Love