It is almost 6 pm on a Saturday evening and Marine Drive is overflowing with people. As a group of boys walks past, Jhanvi and Harsh let go of each other’s hands; sit up straight and move away from each other. Moments ago, the two were an inseparable silhouette, now the setting sun peeps through the gap between them. As the group of boys passing lewd comments moves away, she slips her hand back into Harsh’s. “We are used to this, people often pass comments at couples,” says Jhanvi, who is an 18-year-old economics student at Jai Hind College.
Jhanvi and Harsh’s experience is not uncommon in a city that is still coming to terms with public displays of affection. With over 50% of the country’s population under the age of 25, young lovers are commonplace across India – and nowhere else is this more evident than Mumbai’s Marine Drive. There is no offseason for couples in need of privacy and the 3.6 km boulevard by the Arabian Sea bears testament to countless love stories every day. But are these lovers completely free from judgment?
Neeti, 21, and her boyfriend Jiten, 25, used to visit Marine Drive almost fortnightly and even began dating here. “He asked me out right here for the first time last December,” beams Neeti, who hails from Delhi and finds Mumbai’s freedom exhilarating in comparison. But of late, they have started to avoid their spot. “Just last month, we were sitting here at around 7 in the evening, two guys walked past us and said the most foul things,” says Jiten. “We now prefer going to coffee shops or restaurants across Marine Drive,” adds Neeti.
But not everyone can afford to switch to cafes and restaurants. Sitting beside each other with their arms slightly touching, Aamir and Farzana meet here in between managing their jobs and an MBA course simultaneously. They too feel the hostility every once in a while. “Often, old couples on their evening walks pass loud comments about us. It is embarrassing and humiliating. Are we doing anything illegal?” asks Farzana, 25, adjusting her bright yellow headscarf. In between the working week and weekends spent attending MBA classes at K.J. Somaiya, Farzana and Aamir can only carve out one Saturday evening for romance by the sea. “Our families don’t know we are together, so we can’t openly talk over the phone. Marine Drive is the only place, where we can sit for free,” says Aamir.
With a population density of over 27,000 people per square km, to be in love is to battle for scare space and brave judgment every day. Mangesh, 37, has been selling bottled water at Marine Drive for the past 10 years. He grew up in Uttar Pradesh and though it has been a decade, he cannot come to terms with couples indulging in what he calls “indecent behaviour”. “How can you do all this in public? This is a family place and couples are always… you know… it looks very bad,” says Mangesh as he sells his last bottle of water to a couple attempting a selfie in a Kate-Leo-Titanic-pose.
For any tourist who whizzes by, Marine Drive is the ideal utopian microcosm of India; the greatest equaliser in the city. Couples, families, tourists, marathon runners, dogs, musicians – everybody co-exists, seemingly harmonious. But if you slow down and take a closer look, the double standards become apparent quickly.
After navigating through a pack of beagles and labradors, Mohit and Deepti, walking hand in hand, finally find a good spot. Soon to be married, the duo has a valiant love story to share. Both work as accountants and met via Facebook. However, their families were against them getting married. “She is a Brahmin and I am from a lower caste,” says Mohit, 24. But neither gave up and eventually managed to convince everyone to agree.
However, Mohit disapproves of couples who come to Marine Drive and indulge in public displays of affection. “We too are a couple and feel like kissing but we don’t because families come here and they should not feel uncomfortable.” Mohit and Deepti aren’t the only ones who feel this way. Ashok and his wife Sujata are celebrating nine years of marriage at Marine Drive. Although they admit that the spot is a haven for them (they live in a joint family in Goregaon), they aren’t in favour of the unmarried couples dotting the promenade. “Couples should know how to behave, they should not do too much as this is a public place, enjoy, but stay within the limits,” says Ashok, 40, an employee with the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST).
Couples have to walk a fine line between privacy and ‘outraging the public’s modesty’. Sometimes this line is defined by the multicoloured umbrellas of the monsoon, or women’s dupattas and pallus in the summer –romance and love are shrouded in secrecy yet so open at the edge of this island city.
Managing these dual expectations is not easy and no one knows this better than Constable Makarand Tambe. Having been on his feet for the past 11 hours, he is preparing to wrap up his shift. When asked about the couples at Marine Drive, he says, “It is our duty to protect everyone and make sure there is no trouble.” His colleague, constable Madan, adds that older people often complain about couples indulging in public displays of affection, “Buddhe log ko nahin pasand aata na kabhi (old people don’t like it),” he says. However, both are quick to say that neither of them takes action because, technically, no law is being broken.
Behind the constable, a couple is animatedly communicating in sign language. After a while, they sit motionlessly, and stare at the horizon, oblivious to the crowds’ stares.
In the patchwork quilt that is Mumbai, Marine Drive is its most beautiful border. This sea-facing strip of land is a refuge for most Mumbaikars, but none more than the couples who jostle for a little space to sit and be in love.
Natasha is 26 and has an invisible umbilical cord tied to Mumbai. She is mostly in search of good food and aspires to make it in the world of journalism. Find her on Instagram @nattu_patel and Twitter @NatashaPatel