'Necking nooks' of Bombay

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOMBAY, India -- Along Marine Drive, a sweeping ocean promenade ringed by fading art-deco buildings, lovers gather along the sea wall, kissing and caressing each other, seemingly oblivious to the showers of sea spray and frenetic traffic around them.

Couples publicly displaying their affection may seem out of place here, where traditionally the first time a bride saw her groom was on the conjugal bed. But as a new sexual permissiveness has seized this cramped city of 18 million, Bombay's chronic housing problem is forcing many seeking passion out to the city's few scenic spots.

At the lush hanging gardens, another popular "necking nook," scores of couples lie strategically between the dense flower patches. Many are completely or partially covered by colorful dupattas, ladies' long scarves, and lie feet away from each other. Teen-agers on a dare often snatch the scarves away, causing much embarrassment and occasionally fisticuffs.

"People always came here to romance," says Vimal Saave, a reedy man in a fraying khaki uniform who has tended the garden for 22 years, "but now there are so many more ... and they do so much more."

Romances and prenuptial liaisons were once considered horrifying social sins and remained largely within the purview of the upper, Westernized class. "Affairs, even adultery, have gone middle class ... they're so commonplace," says Urvashi Thakore, a socialite.

But even as Bombayites are finding love, they have nowhere to take it. With downtown apartments often costing $300,000 and salaries averaging $3,000 a year, buying, or even renting, a place of their own is an impossible dream for most.

"Where else can we go?" says Pushkar, 27, a city government employee who modestly gives only his first name as he sits along the Marine Drive wall with his girlfriend. He says both live with their parents and siblings who would frown on, and maybe forbid, their relationship. Since seeing each other at home is unthinkable, Pushkar says they "snatch some time here after work and chat with each other on Yahoo."

Technology is blessed and blamed for much of the sexual liberation consuming Indian cities. Television, once restricted to two government-controlled channels that aired endless documentaries on fertilizer use and shoddy local soaps, beams 80-odd channels into most homes. In addition to the soft sex of Baywatch and its imitators in Bollywood (Bombay's film industry), many cable operators illegally air raunchier movies at night.

Where smut was, and officially still is, strictly banned, the Internet brings forbidden realms to the fingertips. Online chatting, done mostly through dingy cyber cafes squeezed into the deep end of side-street shops, provides many with an avenue through which to live out fantasies and enter into secret relationships like never before.

"Our generation knows how to expresses itself ... live," says Anjali Mehta, 23, as she takes a break from the techno beat at Insomia, a nightclub at the swank Taj Mahal hotel. But it's not just the young who are in the flush of this new sexual liberation. At the Library Bar, many of the couples in designer wear grooving to a Philippine duo's covers of 1970s pop songs are middle-aged, even older.

"Personal freedom is new in India," says a singer known as Maria just after she completes a sultry version of Leo Sayer's "I Love You More Than I Can Say." "People want to enjoy themselves. Bombay is a real party town."

With most marriages here having been entered into at young ages and out of social custom more than love, the loosening of moral chastity belts is leading many long-married spouses to act out previously suppressed desires.

Divorces have doubled in the city since 1999, even as high real estate prices keep divorce rates below what they might be. For couples to find one place to live is hard enough; to separate requires two.

Real estate has always been a problem on this tiny spit of land that is a state capital, military base, scientific center, financial hub, cultural center and home to Bollywood. But since 1995 a huge influx of migrants fleeing the desperate poverty of rural states such as Bihar has almost doubled the city's population and crippled its infrastructure.

For couples to ask for a little space here takes on a totally different meaning. In some areas, the density is 600,000 people per square mile. The Population Institute estimates that Bombay will be the world's second-largest city by 2020. According to census figures, 50 percent of Bombayites, mostly new arrivals, live in slums, and another 25 percent live in decaying, overcrowded housing.

"I discovered the concept of privacy for the first time when I went abroad," says Mehta, who also blames a hangover from the traditional concept of the 'joint family' for cramping her style.

Under Hindu custom, all the brothers of a family live under one roof with their respective wives and children, with everyone sharing each other's incomes, food, space and lives.

Mehta, who shares a bedroom with her sister, says, "You can't do anything on your own. Even if you sit alone in a car the cops come and hassle you."

The phenomenon of public intimacy has spurred the Shiv Sena, a powerful and militant Hindu political party, into leading a crackdown against it. Police vans often clear places like Marine Drive of cuddling couples. In one incident that occurred at the Bandra Bandstand in November last year, 60 people, including two married couples, were booked by the police for indecent exposure.

On Feb. 14, the Shiv Sena -- which wants to transform India into a country ruled by Hindutva, a conservative set of Hindu principles -- denounced Valentine's Day, saying it encouraged "corrupt Western values." Party supporters attacked stores selling romantic cards, threatened hotels hosting Valentine's Day dinners and harassed couples out on dates.

Still Bombay's freewheeling party scene rumbles on, seemingly unperturbed.

Innovations have sprung to combat new challenges. Shahrukh Irani, a college student, says rave parties are held in the open on the outskirts of the city. Downtown, restaurants such as Chiquita, an incongruous snack bar near the University of Bombay, have converted their booths into self-contained little 'rooms.' A 'cover charge' equal to $2.25 buys couples who cannot afford the stiff rates of city hotels an hour of privacy.

But, fearful of disturbing vested interests and vote banks, no political party has taken meaningful action to resolve the housing crisis. Slums under the protection of politicians are expanding over vast tracts of prime land across the city.

A rent control regime, which has frozen rents in 40 percent of Bombay's apartments at 1941 levels, is still in place. Successive generations maintain their occupancy in these apartments, greatly diminishing the supply of rentable space. In June, even when the city's housing board declared 36 rental buildings structurally unstable, many residents refused to leave.

Instead the local government, seeking to overcome its budget deficit, has doubled the transfer tax on purchased apartments, making it about 9 percent. In combination with other charges, real estate is the government's largest revenue generator.

Gazing out at the sea from along Marine Drive, Pushkar says it will take him years to buy a flat. "Or we'll have to live with my parents. Or I'll have to make a quick buck doing some shady work," he jokes.

The prospect of leaving the city does not cross his mind. Despite all its heartache, Bombay is a hard habit to break.

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