My Magical Palace may be Kunal Mukherjee’s maiden venture, but his foray into queer writing has made the veterans sit up and take note. ‘If I am the queen of gay storytelling in India, Kunal Mukherjee must be the crown prince,’ says Hoshang Merchant. Mukherjee keeps his fingers crossed and hopes that when a reader reads his book they would go, ‘I know what that feels like. I can relate to this experience.’
Originally from West Bengal, Mukherjee moved to San Francisco. The book may have been set in San Francisco, but he goes to the India of the early 1970s to draw inferences. In an interview to Millennium Post, Mukherjee talks about his book, and his journey as a writer. Excerpts:
How does it feel like to be a published author?
It is a rather surreal feeling. Things have shifted to a different gear and I am still getting used to it. I have always wanted to write about the vast range of human experiences so readers can relate to the totality of it, regardless of their backgrounds. Being published means that I can share my creative work with them now.
How did you begin your writing journey?
I come from a family of writers, actors, singers and artists. I started reading books at a very young age and started writing poetry when I was eight or nine. That would be the official start of my writing journey, I guess.
Tell us more about My Magical Palace.
I wrote to illustrate the impact of being different and being punished for daring to break the rules. I also wrote about the process that every child goes through when he or she starts shutting down in order to conform and not be ostracised and bullied in school. About the loss of innocence when a child realises that everything around him is not what it seemed but that people, even parents, are driven by fear — of social disgrace, gossip, loss of dignity and losing social standing among peers.
Where did your inspiration for the characters and setting come from?
It so happened that I took a writing class in San Francisco, and as a class exercise I wrote an essay about a beautiful place I could never go back to. My teacher told me then that it was the blueprint for my first novel. I did not believe her then. A few years later, I had some time on my hands and decided to write my first novel and revisited the essay I had written. The setting, Mint House is real. Mint House did exist for several decades before being demolished. It was a beautiful building and rumoured to have been built for the Nizams. The Mint House of my novel is based on that very same Mint House that I grew up in.
Tell us more about your character Rahul? How have you dealt with the issue of homosexuality?
Rahul is a middle class Indian man who has known since he was young that he is attracted to people of the same sex. He has also learned that his orientation is not something that anyone ever talks about except in the most disapproving and revolting way, implying that there is an inherent abnormality and sickness in the way he feels. He shuts down due to his fear of disgrace and the shame it will bring to his family and moves faraway. I think the book has dealt with homosexuality quite openly and frankly. Of course, this is in the context of characters that I created, but the experience is universal. It shows the long term impact of living in the closet and hiding oneself.
Can you share any interesting tidbits you picked up while researching for the book?
Some of the research I did on the Nizam’s family and the history of that dynasty were fascinating. Most amazing of all, it was quite thrilling to read that the Nizam was on the cover of Time Magazine in the 1940s as the world’s richest man. And this was during the years of India’s independence struggle.
My second book is set in Mumbai with an unlikely cast of characters thrown together. I have a lot of interest in Bollywood and the world of movie-making and the mafia world, so this book is written against that backdrop.