So many ordinary Indians, who do not have the choice that India’s elite take for granted, come to Mumbai’s seafront every day, risking indignity, to do something simple. They sit in twos, never in threes (they are conservative in love), but always equidistant, on the Queen’s Necklace, the curving promenade of Marine Drive that hugs the Arabian Sea. Then they fondle and smooch in full public glare.
Some lovers with more daring appetites nudge themselves in the niches of the tetrapod breakwaters. Our country doesn’t tolerate them out of some Bohemian sensibility, as some who kissed publicly during the Kiss of Love protest in Kochi found out. The lovers themselves look a little sheepish in embrace. They are not the bold kissers of Paris, as if they would disapprove if they found their sister or mother there. They are mostly working class. They are a tiny miracle of personal liberty in a country scandalised by acts of intimacy, a spectacle that may soon be no more because of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Coastal Road construction.
An unsightly highway
The Coastal Road extends from Marine Drive in the south to Kandivali in the north. Once completed, it will reduce the two-hour drive from south Mumbai to the city’s western suburbs to 40 minutes. One would have to cross an eight-lane highway to the new seafront, but the sea view will be marred by another unsightly highway.
There have been strong arguments against defacing the iconic sea view, and destroying the coral reefs, but very few in favour of the lovers’ interests. Since the lovers have been in Marine Drive for so long, they have entered urban folklore. Do they have a claim to conservation, like some exotic migratory bird that visits the marshes of Navi Mumbai? A new promenade will come up, but what if the lovers never come back?
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The real reason for hoping the lovers will stay is hard to explain. Certainly, the desperation in plain view is revolting, as is the smell of urine mixed with the briny waters and the slime of plastic at the edge of the shore. The lovers seem to know that they are not tolerated out of some large-heartedness. Mumbai, like any other city in India, is also a charlatan village mind in cosmopolitan guise.
Strength in numbers
They just happen to be so many at one place, inspiring India’s respect for large groups. Like squatters, they have taken advantage of how slow official action is in India. They are reasonably sure that lathis won’t rain on their backs as they get busy, but it is a possibility they can’t deny. And in the past, men posing as policemen have fleeced couples off their money and valuables.
At the same time, there is something special about the spectacle which, if thwarted, may never happen again in India for years to come. It is deeply moving when you think that so many of them are young and may be in love for the first time. And that they are not there to assert their right to public display of affection but to express an innocent desire which has led them to be so reckless.
The lovers, at least in some part, represent the common indignity India inflicts on its poor every day. One defence of them is most of them do not have privacy back in their tiny tarpaulin-roof homes. They cannot afford a hotel room. They have gambled that being seen by strangers is much better than being seen by their sisters or mothers or sons who live with them in close quarters. That they have chosen a seafront may not be for the romantic view alone. With the sea, they are hiding their shame successfully at least on one side. On all other sides, they are at the mercy of those who would avert their eyes, save maybe an umbrella or a shawl for cover.
Ridding the promenade of the lovers is a cruelty the philistines in India would certainly have thought of to satiate their relentless drive for modernity. Not all of that is bad: there could be white walls without rustic stains, clean railways and streets, and orderly traffic. But in the philistine’s eyes, India will not gain self-respect if it doesn’t become some urban delight like Dubai, with looping highways and glass buildings that all look the same. And unlike squatters, the lovers can be evicted without protest. So it’s a miracle that Mumbai has allowed them to be there for so long. Maybe for the first time, India exercised good judgment about its citizens’ personal liberty: by not caring about it so much.
But the BMC may change all that. By redeveloping the Necklace, it may scatter the lovers forever. Once the construction starts, they will have to go, at least until there is a new walkway and promenade. Even then there is no promise that they will flock there again. The place might be too different in spirit.
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This history of Mumbai’s seafront could have taken a much more interesting turn, though. What if the philistines actually built large condominiums to house the lovers because they just couldn’t bear to see them?
Maybe in a really far-fetched future, maybe in another 75 years, maybe in our lifetime, the lovers will come out of their comfortable homes to the seafront to do something so simple, by right this time, not out of fear or shame. And then that iconic image of lovers by the Mumbai seafront won’t look as if it’s a miracle, just something very banal. And India will be a beautiful place to live in.
Joseph Antony is an investment banking professional from Mumbai.