Mumbai lovers find haven as attitudes to dating change
- 1 August 2012
- From the section Asia
Finding a place to love in Mumbai, India's most populous city, is not always easy.
Every day hundreds of young couples line the city's seafront, to escape the prying eyes of their parents. In India dating is still seen as taboo by many.
"When you come here all you see is love," exclaims Rama Shankar. "All they do is kiss, but it's nice watching them kiss," he adds.
Shankar is a mere peanut seller, not a voyeur, but as he roams around the seafront in one of Mumbai's suburbs, it is hard for him to avoid catching a glimpse of an embrace or even more.
Atop rocks with jagged edges which jut out onto gentle waves, sit dozens of young couples.
Many are holding onto each other with an iron grip, the girlfriend's head resting on her boyfriend's shoulder, his arm wrapped around her back protectively.
Some stare out into the sea, barely exchanging glances, while others, the ones who catch Shankar's attention most, are engaged in full-on, lip-locking, saliva-sharing, kisses.
This area, next to the remains of an old Portuguese fort, at Bandra Land's End, is one of the many stretches of the city's coastline which are a haven for young lovers desperate to find a secluded place to be together.
For others, it is not just a place, but space.
'Parents can't catch us'
Mumbai, with a high population density of more than 20,000 people per square kilometre, is a cramped city, where there is simply not enough room to conduct a relationship.
While dating is slowly becoming more acceptable in India, it is still not the norm.
Culture has always dictated that you did not have any boyfriends or girlfriends and, instead, waited for your parents to introduce you to a suitable match. Times might be changing, but not as fast as many young people here would like them to.
"This is the most private place for us to be alone," say Ashima and Mayur, who are both 20. It took the couple, who have been together for four years, more than an hour to travel to this spot.
"It's too far for our parents to catch us if we're here," says Mayur.
What makes this journey all the more remarkable is that the pair live next door to each other, but are very afraid of being caught.
"I have no idea how they'd react if they saw us here," adds Mayur, as he grabs his girlfriend's hand to reassure her.
The couple say they only come here to talk and hold hands. "Some people kiss here, but not us," says Ashima, keen that I note this fact down.
In fact, very few of the couples here admit they kiss, even if they perhaps do. This is a country which allowed kisses in Bollywood films only a few years ago. Romance might be revered in the movies, but is often a cause of revulsion in real life.
Twenty-one-year-old Kirti bows her head, blushing, as her boyfriend reveals what she feels is an intimate detail of their relationship, which perhaps shouldn't be shared.
"Sometimes we kiss here," says Aashish, who says his parents know about his three-year-old relationship.
The couple live in the same block of flats, again more than an hour away from here, and met during a religious festival.
"My friend saw him and said, 'he's nice'," says Kirti. "She's just so beautiful" Aashish interjects.
Kirti's parents still have no knowledge of the affair. "I don't know when I'll tell them."
The setting is not as romantic as it first seems. Beneath the craggy rocks are piles of rubbish, rotting food, and a large number of discarded flip flops, the casualties of misplaced footsteps.
The smell in the midday heat can be pungent, but almost all of the couples I meet here ignore these details, happy they can be alone and admire stretches of the stunning coastline.
Most couples are bashful and shy about sharing the details of why they are here. Some are, on the face of it, boastful.
"We're not children, our parents don't mind," says Sachin. "We kiss and hold hands here - why not?"
Sachin comes here with his girlfriend Madhu once a week, making a two-hour round trip. "I asked him out, I just knew it was going to last a lifetime," says Madhu, glancing at her boyfriend proudly, before smiling at me.
And yet, despite their profession of being a modern, open couple, they talk to me away from the view of others, hidden underneath brightly coloured umbrellas.
But, it seems that even if this is a space for freedom, just admitting you might be doing something your parents forbid, is enough to cause shame for many of the young lovers here.
"We're only best friends," say Ashwin and Ritika, the second I approach them. Moments earlier, their hands were intertwined, and the body language from afar seemed to suggest something more than just a platonic connection.
"Lovers do come here to date, but we just come here to feel better," says Aswhin.
Half an hour later, as I spot the pair in an embrace, they quickly spring apart.
Despite this jumpiness, the area is seen as a safe haven for couples.
Times are changing
A few security guards patrol the area, but even in a city where public displays of affection are banned, and people can be fined for any behaviour which can be construed as indecent, the police here appear to turn a blind eye.
"You can't go to each couple and tell them to stop kissing," says one police officer in the area. "Besides, times are changing," he adds.
They might be, but there will always be detractors.
Like Deep and Shiksha, who had an arranged married six months ago, and who are also here to admire the view.
Well, most of it.
"We don't like these young kids coming here, we don't like seeing them kiss and all that," says Deep. "It's inappropriate, what they're doing, especially as a lot of families want to come here."
Some might brand Deep a killjoy, determined to puncture the pursuit of true love. But in India, this view is still deeply held too.
On the silver screen, true love always prevails, but in this city, the home of Bollywood, finding the strength and space to love remains a challenge for young couples.