MUMBAI, India — Every weekday morning 23-year-old Muskaan gets ready for work in an apartment she shares with her mother in Chembur, a suburb in Mumbai. Muskaan's mom thinks her daughter will catch a bus to her office in Powai.
Instead, she meets her boyfriend, 24-year-old Dilip, and he gives her a ride to work on his motorcycle. Muskaan and Dilip have been together for a year, but their families do not know. The young couple fear their parents would disapprove of them dating before marriage.
They both still live at home and since they are not allowed to bring a member of the opposite sex over, they see each other in secret. Whenever they have free time, Muskaan and Dilip leave their own neighborhood and ride Dilip’s motorcycle to one of the few public spaces available in Mumbai.
On a recent Saturday, they sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a promenade, admiring the sunset over the Arabian Sea in Bandra, another suburb. “We normally sit here because this is a very beautiful place,” said Muskaan, who wears thick black eyeliner, black hoop earrings, silver sparkling sandals and a traditional Indian outfit called a salwar kameez.
Asked if they take their intimacy a step further and kiss or do other personal acts while sitting on Carter Road, Muskaan says in a matter-of-fact tone: “Obviously. Why would people come here?”
Walk down Carter Road in the evening and you will find children playing tag, expats jogging, old men chatting on benches and couple after couple sharing intimate moments. In Bandra’s Bandstand area, across the street from Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s mansion and florescent coffee shops, couples dot the rocks leading into the vast sea.
Along highways, couples sit close together on parked motorbikes with their backs to the passing vehicles. Men typically wear jeans and a T-shirt, while women don saris, salwar kameezes, Western dresses, head scarves or black burqas and niqabs that only allow their eyes to be seen.
In a city where most people live with their parents or extended family and privacy is often nonexistent, couples have no option but to flip the idea of public space on its head. They turn whatever limited public areas like promenades and even highways they can find into private space. Asked if the young couple on Carter Road plan to get married, Muskaan slips her arm through Dilip’s, pulls him closer and says with a laugh, “He’ll not leave me!”
But even if they marry, they say they will live with Dilip’s family, still have no privacy and continue to come to Carter Road or Bandstand to share some alone time. It's a common practice, said Sameera Khan, a journalist whose book on public space will be published by Penguin Books India later this year. “They find their privacy and intimate moments in public,” she said.
Khan also said it’s common for couples who are still in the dating phase to leave their neighborhoods and cuddle up in other suburbs because they do not want to get caught. “In your neighborhood you can be outed by friends or nosy neighbors,” she said.
Most of the couples found snuggling in public are lower class because wealthier people can afford to buy a cappuccino for about 70 rupees ($1.50) at one of Mumbai’s fancy cafes and share time together there. But the middle and upper class also often live at home due to cultural norms and exorbitantly high rent, and they too must find creative ways to meet their lovers.
Bollywood actress Sanaa Mirza, 22, still lives at home and shares a bedroom with her mother, but her family disapproves of her dating Shah Nawaz, 26, they said while sitting together at Bandstand on a recent Saturday night. Mirza wears tight jeans, fabulous white leather heels and a matching belt.
She holds her mobile and pack of cigarettes in her hand as she says both of their families are Muslim, but Nawaz comes from a simple, traditional background. His family does not approve of women who wear short dresses, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, like Mirza does.
And Mirza’s family wants her to marry someone “who is as broadminded as I am,” the young actress said. Forbidden from seeing each other at their homes in the nearby suburb Santa Cruz, they meet up in public spaces. But this young couple does not need to turn public promenades into spots for make-out sessions — they have a silver Mercedes-Benz for that.
Public intimacy in Mumbai is not all fun and games — at times, it has been a public safety hazard.
The local press runs stories of couples who climb out on the rocks at Bandstand, sit together staring into each other’s eyes for hours, only to find that the water has receded, and they are stranded. A civilian died while trying to rescue a couple in April 2008. The public lovebirds also stir up their fair share of controversy.
Some local community groups have waged campaigns against the couples, whom they see as tarnishing their neighborhoods and making areas unfit for children. Sometimes the police sweep in and conduct arrests on the grounds of indecent behavior. With the exception of some arrests, the police usually pose little challenge to the powers of love. The couples fight back by bribing the officers to let them stay and even smooch. According to an article in Mumbai Mirror, kissing at Bandstand costs between 50 and 200 rupees ($1 to 4). If you want to do what the article calls “hanky-panky,” it’ll cost you up to five times more.
The cost of pure, hands-free love? Priceless.
Just don’t expect to get a room.