By Marlene Baldeweg-Rau
Where do people go when they want to express love or desire for their partner – whether it’s holding hands or talking or getting physical? If bringing a partner home isn’t an option, what do people in Mumbai do when they want some alone time with their lovers? I asked some of them.
“I would video call her and I would say to her, I miss you so badly. Is there any chance you can come back?”
Marine Drive – Navya, male, 24 years old
“During the first month I was in Mumbai, whenever I went to any of these romantic places like Marine Drive, I would video call her and I would say to her, I miss you so badly. Is there any chance you can come back? Please come back. I will do anything for you.”
A year ago, Navya and his girlfriend made the decision to move to Mumbai. He was pursuing an MBA and his girlfriend was pursuing a job in Delhi. They both went for an interview for a new job and they both got selected. “So we decided, fuck everything, we are going to do this. At that point of time we thought ok, this is our destiny, we are meant to be together.” He dropped his MBA plan, she dropped her Delhi job and in 2017, they met at the Delhi airport.
The first day in Mumbai was spent with his girlfriend and her parents (who didn’t know they were dating), making arrangements at the new office and doing errands, and then they parted ways to check out their respective accommodation. Navya and six other male colleagues saw and approved their flat. But his girlfriend’s parents had decided that the women’s flat was not safe and that she had to leave Mumbai.
“A month before we left for Mumbai, we planned that after our first salary, I would buy a motorbike and we would explore Mumbai as much as possible for the next two years,” says Navya. Marine Drive was one of the first places he visited alone. “It was the first time tears came from my eyes and I thought, ‘I really miss her.’ I used to come here around 10-11 pm, sit here and imagine what if she was here. What would we have talked about? Our future and insecurities and everything related to that.” He would then catch the first train home at 4:30 am.
A year on, he is still in Mumbai and now on OKCupid. Where might he take a new match out on a first date? He hasn’t decided yet, but Marine Drive is definitely on the list: “That place is known for couples and the sounds of the waves is so good,” he says. Navya also wants to take a long bike ride with her. “Bandstand is a very sexy place. A motorbike ride along bandstand would be nice.”
“The walking was very purposeless which was the best part about it, because it meant the both of us really wanted to spend the time with each other.”
Bandra – Harshal, male, 23
“My first kiss, ever, was at this little lane right beside Churchgate station. I was 18 or 19 and everyone around me had their first kiss and there was this unnecessary pressure that I felt,” says Harshal. “We were sitting down on a kerb and I told her that I care about her a lot and she said, ‘You know what, kiss me.’ So we kissed at that moment and that’s as Bollywood as it can get!”
After their first kiss, on the way to her home, Harshal dropped down on one knee and sang “Words” by Boyzone. “It was very cheesy, random and only for a few seconds and she was blushing like crazy. It was one of the first times we walked down one of these lanes in Bandra,” says Harshal.
These walks through Bandra became routine for Harshal and his now ex-girlfriend. “There were a lot of corners where we would sneak a little kiss, all things I remembered well. We always held hands but we would have to wait for the right time or that special moment to have that secretive kiss.”
“We wouldn’t always walk the same route or follow the straight lanes. We didn’t really care what route we took, we would keep on walking in a general direction, stopping at a random place to have pani puri, not having any distractions, not caring what the time was.”The walking was very purposeless which was the best part about it, because it meant the both of us really wanted to spend the time with each other.”
“We would also keep checking if her family was home. If we found out they weren’t we would quickly go to her place. Those were special moments together,” Harshal laughs.
But most of the time, it was the walks. “Eventually we would stop one lane before the lane leading to her house, just to make sure that nobody could spot us, like her neighbours or her parents. There would be little taxis we would hide behind and we would have this prolonged goodbye, where we would be saying goodbye but we still continued to hang out. Then I would watch her walk and enter into the building until she disappeared, then I would pick up my phone, call her immediately and we would start talking all over again.”
Once they were sitting in front of the wall of an apartment on one of their walks home, talking and cuddling. Eventually a watchman came out and in a polite manner asked them to please leave because someone from a balcony had complained about them.
“It’s one of my favourite memories,” Harshal says. “It’s not like I had a problem with the watchman or I was angry at not being able to use that public space. It was a fun little moment. We felt a very innocent kind of naughty and it was a nice moment we could steal together.”
“It was a little scary. He could’ve been any sort of moral police, and we could’ve gotten into trouble with the law.”
Marine Drive – Snehal, female, 22 years old
Snehal and her girlfriend were drinking somewhere close to Marine Drive and decided to head over there to continue the date. They were making out at Marine Drive when a man who was looking was so shocked that he followed them for a while. “He kept asking us one question, ‘How did love happen between you two?’” What initially began as amusement eventually turned into worry. Snehal says, “We managed to get rid of him soon, but it was a little scary. He could’ve been any sort of moral police, and we could’ve gotten into trouble with the law.”
Snehal explains that Marine Drive is one of those spots which is locally popular for romance and where people do not mind passing others being intimate. She says, “It’s like the secret spots in school. Everyone knows what happens there and everyone including the authorities lets it happen anyway.” Still, Snehal says, “There’s always the fear of someone catching you and then turning you in to the police, or the police themselves catching you.”
“With men, it hasn’t been so much of a problem, but with women, one has to be careful”
Autorickshaws and taxis – Sonal, female, 31 years old
“I am bisexual, and my experience with men and women in public spaces have been different. With men, it hasn’t been so much of a problem, but with women, one has to be careful,” says Sonal.
One time, a date kissed her openly on a street. They were shopping for shoes at Dadar market and right before crossing the road, her date leaned over and kissed her on her lips. While they crossed the road a man came up to them and tried to grope her date’s breasts. “But luckily for us, she had trained in boxing,” says Sonal, “so her immediate reaction as a reflex was for her hand to come up, so he couldn’t touch her.”
With men, Sonal says, “if we get too touchy feely, than obviously people will have a problem. But it’s not like they will immediately come to attack you. This non-interference does not apply to queer people.”
When it comes to same-sex dating, transportation is her preferred meeting place. “I would travel with them in auto rickshaws in long distance when we wanted to do something intimate or sexual,” she says.
She describes a time where she was getting intimate late at night on a taxi ride from Mahim to Juhu with her partner at the time, a trans-man who was in the middle of transitioning. “He was looking pretty andro, and we were pretty drunk actually, we were not having sex, we were just feeling each other up and kissing – and at one point our driver stopped in the middle of the highway and was like, ‘Please get off.’”
They both got out of the taxi, waited for a bit along the highway, and then took an auto to her partner’s place. “At the time I was not very bothered by it, I didn’t really care, but he could have dropped us off some place where there were other autos,” says Sonal.
So is there a space in Mumbai that queer people can feel safe when they want to be romantic and intimate?
Queer parties that are hosted at bars or pubs, says Sonal, where the bouncers have been sensitised, are places where queer people can kiss and can be intimate with each other. For gay men, there are train compartments and festivals. Building terraces offer space and privacy too.
She lists lakes and waterfronts that can be secluded, isolated and friendly, such as Carter Road, Bandstand, Marine Drive, Bandra Fort, and Worli Sea Face. She remembers a moment when she went on a date with a woman to a lake and they were able to hold hands and she rested her head on her date’s shoulder. “I think Bombay is much more open to love. Specifically because of the space crunch. Everyone understands that you don’t have space for love, she says.
“My friends and I would wonder why these couples were going to the beach just to walk and sit and talk, because we went to go in the water”
Suruchi Beach – Joshua*, male, 24
“All the couples used to go to Suruchi beach. When I was 13-14 years old, my friends and I would wonder why these couples were going to the beach just to walk and sit and talk, because we went to go in the water,” says Joshua, an accountant. “Some couples would even smooch, and we thought smooching is part of sex so we thought they were having sex. My friends and I would go there and disturb them so they would have to stop. But then when I got mature, I realised this is also a part of life, this romance thing.”
Joshua says, “I don’t have so much romantic things in my life, but there are many interesting romantic stories I see at the beach. I am someone that is comfortable in rooms with four walls. When I see others being romantic, I like to laugh.” That sounds like his 13-year-old self resurfacing. But with some more probing, he reveals that he does have particular ideas of what romance is like.
“Romance is when we start liking someone. When you are in love, anything can be romantic, we are happy with any sort of small gesture. Romance does not have to include sex,” he replies.
He has thought of someone in a romantic way, but would never want to go to a place like Suruchi beach with them, which he still seems to equate with sex. He says, “I get a little scared doing some of these things because when I was in the 7th standard, one of our teachers said you must only have sex after marriage, otherwise it is a sin. That thought is still on my mind and I am scared of diseases like AIDS.”
‘Log kya kahenge’ also seems to be a huge driving force for Joshua, who says, “We can’t do romance in our area, because of people in our society. There is no place without judging. If you don’t care about what others think, then you can enjoy yourself. There will be a cost – gossiping will happen, even for a married couple, but then you can enjoy romance anywhere at any time.”
And that seems to trigger a memory: he describes a time he went with his family to Suruchi beach. “My uncle teased his wife. Romance could happen within the family in this public space. They sang and had fun and did things they wouldn’t do often within the house,” he says.
“It was a very big part of who we were as a couple. If I brought someone else up here, it wouldn’t mean as much.”
Apartment terrace – Natasha, female, 23 years old
It’s late afternoon on a Monday, and it’s been a year and a week since Natasha and her boyfriend broke up.
We took the elevator to the 17th floor and walked through a door labeled “Refuge Area”. Immediately in front of us was a white, beautiful, open space where the skyline of Mumbai provided a backdrop and where the temperature stayed cool for those heated romantic moments. “Over the two years of our relationship, this was our place. We would get done with work, he was working only two stations away at Matunga Road. I would meet him downstairs and we would come straight up here.”
She walks into a second room, out of sight of the doors, and says, “the light switch is right next to the entrance door, so we kept the lights off when we came and if someone came in and turned it on then we knew someone was there. We tried our best to make it appear that we weren’t doing anything, even if we were sweating.”
What would happen if they were found “unpresentable”?
“It would be pretty bad because technically this is a public space. We have a society committee that takes care of these things and they would get involved. Then my parents would get involved for sure and then everyone would know, including my grandparents. There would be notices put out. It’s a small place. It would be a SCANDAL,” Natasha says, and they certainly had a couple of close calls, “but luckily that never happened.”
“He LOVED the view. He loved that it was dark. He loved that it was a place that he could escape from work and stress, a place that we could be alone together. It became our spot.”
One time he came there directly from work and surprised her with KitKat, knowing her love for it. They sat down on the floor and had a picnic. “This place has been integral to our relationship,” she says. Every kind of conversation happened there; conversations when they were upset with each other, conversations about their jobs, their future, trips, and eventually the breakup conversation. “It had to be here. It was very fitting that whole thing had to be in this space because we had so many conversations, so many meaningful moments spent here, it was very authentically our thing, our place.”
Once, Natasha brought a friend to show her the view and her boyfriend found out and said to Natasha, “Hey, that is not cool, that is our space, you can’t take people up there and spend time with them there because it’s our thing.”
Would she use use this space with a future boyfriend?
She replies, “Knowing me, I don’t think I will. It will stay as very specific to him, it was a very big part of who we were as a couple. If I brought someone else up here, it wouldn’t mean as much.”
“In India, if you build places for people to be romantic, people will not go there.”
Gateway of India – Kumar*, male, 48
Kumar, a freelance architect, describes how he first met his wife: “In 1996, I was working in Singapore and I was 29 and my parents were afraid I was going to marry a Singaporean.” Knowing he would be visiting home in a week for the holidays, they sent him a photograph of his future wife who was 25 at the time, and working for Air India. They talked on the phone once and then they met the next day in his hometown of Nagpur. “The one thing that made a lasting impression on me was when she said, ‘I will adjust to any place. I will adjust wherever you go,’ ” says Kumar. Two days later he left to go back to Singapore.
She sent him love letters and photographs, but he didn’t really return the gesture. “I never felt like falling in love,” he continues, “I thought maybe it’s a girly thing, I thought romance was not a boy thing.” Two months later, they got engaged, and then he went back to Singapore. “She was missing all of the fun. She would hear from her friends how engaged couples would go out and do romantic things,” Kumar says. Soon after, they married. They skipped the honeymoon and he immediately returned to Singapore for work. He said, “She was very romantic. It’s still more on her side. I am not romantic, it doesn’t come naturally to me.”
“We never went on a date just the two of us,” Kumar says. “Maybe one day after our engagement, we went out.”
Now, on weekends, around 10 pm, when the traffic is less, Kumar, his wife and daughter drive to the Gateway of India. Kumar says, “I prefer to come late in the evening, it’s very peaceful – the lights, the darkness.” After walking around the Gateway of India, they walk to Colaba Market to shop and then they stop at Bade Miyan for some snacks. By 2 am they reach home. They do this once every three months. “It’s now more of a friend’s thing. My daughter’s friends parents, two or three families come together and we go out together,” Kumar says.
“I would not want to go anywhere else. The Gateway of India gives you a feeling of being in the city, at the end of the city. In India, if you build places for people to be romantic, people will not go there. I have never seen couples being romantic at beaches.”
“It’s very quiet and very beautiful. We come here for the sunset and we eat anda pav”
Aksa Beach – Mazher, male, 30 years old and Purnima, female, 22 years old
“The first time I brought Purnima here, I remember the moment she got close to the sea – I saw her in every corner. Like a small kid, she was running from one spot on the beach to the next,” Mazher says. “She was so happy. It was so pleasant for me to see that in her. I knew that would be our place.”
Purnima and Mazher are sitting on the balcony of their hotel room, eating masala chips, listening to the waves and the rain and looking out at the darkness that swallows Aksa beach. Purnima was born and raised in Delhi, but moved to Mumbai a year ago to start her flight attendant residency. Mazher, born and raised in Mumbai, has been working as a cabin supervisor for the past 9 years. They met on a flight to Bangkok and to their surprise, a romance began.
“I was embarrassed. I am a supervisor and I asked myself, ‘Why are you doing this?’” says Mazher. “We are on a flight, we are working together. I’ve never done this in my life.”
As a couple always on the go, they try to match their flights so they can at least try to spend two or three days together. “It becomes a getaway for us. We work together, and then we leave and have a room to ourselves,” says Purnima. They both giggle as Mazher describes a time when the flight was over and all of the cabin crew had stepped off the plane and they shared a kiss behind the curtains. “That was a fantasy that came true for me,” he says.
Though Aksa beach is a bit far, Mazhar chose it because, “It’s near my family’s home so I came here a lot before I brought Purnima. I thought this would be a perfect space for love and for romance and I like this place because it’s calming. She had asked about Juhu beach and I said it was boring and too crowded.”
Purnima says, “We come here for the sunset and we eat anda pav.”
“If it’s raining, we bring it back to the car, eat it there and we sit and we talk, we hold hands annnnnd…” Purnima says excitedly, “…we kiss!”
It starts to rain again. They both start laughing, almost as if they are two small kids who just learned what kissing is.
“The car is a safe place, it’s enclosed,” says Purnima.
“Something about being stared at when holding hands,” Mazher Khan continues, “it’s very difficult to romance in Mumbai.”
Sometimes they sneak into his family’s home after 11 pm and Purnima leaves before his parents wake up at 6.30 am. “75% of the dates are at the beach, 20% of dates are abroad, and 5% involve sneaking into his place,” says Purnima.
If you didn’t have this beach, where would you both go, I ask.
Mazher Khan turns to Purnima and says, It’s a very good question. Where would we go?
*Name changed on request