Reema* (21) and Karan* (23) have been in a serious relationship for over two years now. Both of them haven’t been in a steady relationship of this nature before, and are extremely committed to each other. Currently living with their respective families in one-bedroom apartments, they have mutually decided that the time is ripe to take their relationship to ‘the next level.’ It is only then that they are faced with the ubiquitous question that affects a majority of the youth in our country -- where do they go to hook up?
As a country, our notions of romance have always been a little over-the-top. In Bollywood, decidedly one of the best mirrors of our general sexual hypocrisy, physical intimacy is something that is usually glorified and exaggerated right until the question of sex arises. Then, barring a few slightly more progressive examples in independent cinema, the camera shyly pans away to some version of a discrete fade-out. Although this trend is slowly changing, cultural convictions remain largely unchanged and we are yet to see a truly realistic portrayal of pre-marital sexual relationships in India. Still, it has become more imperative than ever that we accept their (growing) existence. Especially if we are to take into account that our inability to view the physicality of love has a serious impact on the youth’s psyche. We’re raising a sexually confused, supremely guilty nation of untoward young people and the consequences can be frightening.
Recently, Homegrown decided to initiate this conversation with over 30 young couples in Mumbai, a city renowned for its lack of space and privacy across all classes. We found that as in reel life, in real life too, there’s a flurry of abashed blushes and coy conversations when it comes to discussing sex, leaving a myriad questions that youngsters might have, unanswered.
In the survey we conducted, it became more than apparent that the youth may be opening up sexually, women especially, but they are constantly challenged with the insufficiency of space and the pressure of societal expectations. As such, they are resorting to decidedly inventive means to find solutions to their problem. In our opinion, the consequences of not opening up the stigmas around this issue can be grave but in this first piece, we’re only touching upon the issue of how this might tie into India’s abounding rape culture. Click here for a deeper narrative on how our own unknowing actions can fuel sexual violence from our friends at No Country For Women.
I. The Abandonment
(Of Public Spaces & Backward Cultures)
More and more couples from lower economic backgrounds are resorting to making love, when time permits, at abandoned monuments that have become a go-to spot for such perusals. 3 out of 4 such couples we spoke to agreed privacy could be considered an issue, but it was nothing that couldn’t be worked around.
Naresh*, a 19-year-old book-seller by day, is the embodiment of the very open-mindedness we were out to locate when it comes to matters of pre-marital sex.
“I’m completely for premarital sex. Everybody wants to have sex, people who claim they don’t are lying. And they should damn well be allowed to do so but no one should regret it later.” His girlfriend, Nolita* (18) was less forthcoming and this was a trend that we continued to witness right through the interviews.
From their description about community approval however, it appeared that they were considerably more open about their young engaging in sexual activity over here. It isn’t something that’s readily brought into their homes, but certainly something they have all grown up exposed to in their close quartered environment. “There’s no place to hide what you’re upto here,” Naresh smiles. Moreover, the problems with making a consistent income are far bigger here and given the fact that everyone sets out to work in the day, the opportunity for alone time in their small shanties is actually much higher than it is even for the middle class. “But we’re always working at the same time too,” he laughs when asking if they ever make use of the opportunity. “It’s much more private at the fort anyway.”
Nolita does admit that the brunt of getting caught in a compromising position is – surprise surprise – often borne by the girls in the community. Naresh doesn’t necessarily agree but after speaking to two more couples (friends of theirs) in the area, there is a distinct pattern in the solidarity between the stories of the same sex. No one’s willing to share specific incidents though. Ask if they believe they’re in a long-term relationship and every girl answers ‘yes.’ Naresh on the other hand, shrugs. “No one knows what’s forever.”
Back to finding privacy in public though, they’re all in agreement with the oldest trick in the book working best—dupattas are still their best friend.
II. Where’s the middle ground?
Of all the backgrounds we managed to get some insight into, lower middle class communities’ youth consider their concern for space a much more urgent issue. More so from the guilt of being caught by a disapproving society rather than the actual inability to spend alone time with one another.
“Both our houses are always full, so there’s no chance of being alone unless one of our families leave on vacation and even then we’d have to be sneaked in so that no one from the building society sees and mentions it to them,” complains Rahul*, a 24-year-old computer engineer turned videographer. Both he and his girlfriend of 6 years completed their engineering from a Mumbai college where they met. Interestingly, in the case of another pair of college sweethearts, both sets of parents are actually fully aware of their love interests but the question of being provided any privacy is unthinkable to even broach. “We’re lucky because he can at least come over and so can I,” his girlfriend says,”but we’re not even allowed to shut our door fully, let alone lock it.” Still, both are grateful for a situation they know to be better than many of their peers.
It’s a recurring theme for most but almost all have found that blatant deception, and often, outright dangerous options are the only way around it. Amtosh Saharan*, a 22-year-old graphic designer, offers testament to both. “It really depends on your monetary situation. When we were in college I remember lots of my friends would just make out a bit any chance they got, any place they got. Now that i’m earning, we plan a little more. We tell our parents we’re staying at friend’s houses and book an affordable hotel for the night.” He makes a good point but it does leave you wondering what happened to the joy of spontaneous sex? Can it ever just happen without planning? Not a single couple in this bracket of individuals believe that it is. And most haven’t even really considered it as a huge issue.
“It’s not like this backward mentality extends to our friend’s circle,” says Akash Waghale*, when asked about how the lack of spontaneity affects him. The 23-year-old says everyone has enough friends who can cover for them and movie theatres and short getaways to nearby locations like Lonavala every once in a while is enough to keep them “interested.”
The volume of couples we spoke to here was considerably higher and situations did vary a lot. Some couples we spoke to did have their own places, men or women, and didn’t have to struggle nearly as much. The only cause for concern was wayward landlords and ludicrous rules but two couples we spoke to had no such worries and claimed that this was becoming less and less of an issue depending on the area you live in. Andheri West and Bandra especially, according to a 27-year-old aspiring actor we spoke to, has so many single men and women working in the film and advertising industry (apparently notoriously correlated with anti-societal behaviour) it would seem, many societies are ok with it as long as it doesn’t become a hassle. “It does look bad if you’re a girl living alone having too many guys over though, I’ve had more than one friend get into trouble even though the men coming over were only friends,” he admits, swiftly alluding to the double standards both sexes face.
“I’ve never faced such problems,” 24-year-old copywriter, Sarah Hamid, agrees. Having rented out the same one BHK in Pali Naka for over two years, she says she makes an effort not to make a nuisance of herself to society but has yet to receive any complaints from either her landlord or neighbour about her boyfriend staying over, usually a bi-weekly occurrence at the most.
It’s met with sheer disgust when the proposition of ‘public hooking up’ is brought up. Says Amrita Doshi, a 21-year-old economics student from St. Xaviers, “We all have a right not to be made uncomfortable in public spaces!”
“I’ve made out with my boyfriend in cabs but it’s never like a pre-planned thing. And I can’t imagine us going further than that anywhere else,” she says. “I don’t know how all those bandstand type couples do it,” says another young college graduate we spoke to. “I’d be too afraid of someone I know seeing me and telling my parents or something,” she echoes a common fear.
Cabs however, bring us to our next point.
III. On The Move
(The Public Transport Dilemma)
The sheer irony of mass machines conceived by a public necessity, being converted into sanctuaries of privacy for couples, is certainly not lost on anyone. Boats, Buses, Cabs and Rickshaws, no means of public transport in the city is free from seriously public displays of affection, much to the chagrin of other passengers. Thanks to the compartmentalisation between genders, the local trains seem less prone to such discrepancies, though depending on how late the hour is, it’s not unheard of here either.
While we couldn’t get anyone to go on the record about their experiences, more than a few of these young couples hinted towards a certain BEST bus service that could be arranged for a vague sort of privacy for their canoodling. These young couples (college students mostly) ‘rent’ out the backseat of BEST AC buses, all the way from one end of the city to the other and back, making full use of their time in between. Of course, this limits their physical activity from complete sexual engagement to more innocent transgressions however, the intriguing part of this transaction is perhaps just how few people bat an eyelid when they hear about these ‘arrangements’. Least of all the conductors, who have found a way to make a quick buck way to make some extra earnings to supplement besides their otherwise meagre ones. The most common spots for these couples are actually on the top of a double decker bus.
(B.) Autorickshaws & Taxis:
The same can be said of the drivers of autos and taxis, who are oblivious (or at least pretend to be) to the couples acting fresh in their backseats. This is also the only means of public transport that shows no class bias. Almost every couple we spoke to had indulged in a little PDA in taxis though those belonging to higher echelons do so more spontaneously than habitually.
“It does make me uncomfortable,” says Mohammed Faisal, a young cab driver who starts his fare from close to SNDT college every evening at six. “Because I do work the night shift in this area, I’ve seen many couples using my taxi as though it’s their bedroom. I think they should wait till marriage but I don’t say anything because they will pay the fare. I only feel worried that maybe a policeman might stop the taxi,” he admits, and this is hardly surprising.
It has to be taken into account that matters of sex in a public place is considered a punishable offence by the Supreme Court, that delineates the governing code on the subject in Section 294 which states:
Whoever, to the annoyance of others-
(a) Performs any obscene act in any public place, or
(b) Sings, recites or utters any obscene song, balled or words, in or near any public place,
Shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.
The wide scope of the implication of the word ‘“obscenity’”, has led to a series of rather convenient interpretations carried out by police officers who have targeted acts of innocence as defaming acts of morality and Indian culture.
Aditya Raghavendran* and his girlfriend has a similar bone to pick with the authorities. “There have been so many instances when I’ve been approached by a cop just for sitting in my own car with my girlfriend. They stop you if you hug, kiss, hold hands, or even sit next to each other. At this rate, no wonder people are hiding somewhere and having sex. There is no space to be normal with each other,” he says, the frustration clearly showing through.
C). Boats & Cruises:
Coming back to the reconstruction of public transport for private purposes however, boats and cruises are also making a serious come-back in Mumbai’s hook up culture. Indian popular culture is rife with the very romantic imagery of a brooding Rajesh Khanna serenading a coy Sharmila Tagore in a boat lit by lanterns, but the reality is well, a little more crude than that.
While a young friend in Calcutta mentioned that boat-renting is a ruse used by many in her city, it appears that the trend is fast catching up for the youth in Mumbai as well, who rent boat rides near the Gateway of India.
According to one of the boat suppliers, Mohan bhai*, things have gotten so hectic that it has become impossible to rent such a boat with family anymore. In fact, he says, it’s impossible to decide whether the sudden upswing of sex-hungry teenagers has been good for business or bad for it! Again, we were unfortunately unable to find a couple to go on record about this service but are inclined to believe it’s far from a myth.
IV. Your place or mine?
(Or what about our his?)
There are a few who remain unstressed for either space, or money, for whom the issue of space hardly arises at all and in the case of the former, they are happy to help out other friends with the same space dilemma by offering their own space for love-making escapades.
“It’s not like i’m running a brothel,” exclaims theatre actress/screenwriter Vineeta Subramanyam* (28) who’s had many of her good friends over the years stay over with their partners, in her guest bedroom in Santacruz East. “My parents are almost always out of town on work and if anything, they’re happy for me to have the company. Of course they wouldn’t like it if they thought couples were staying over or something but i’m happy to let really good friends hang out and use the other room if they really need. It’s frustrating that there’s no space to be ourselves in the city!” she says, quick to add that, “you’d think we were doing something morbidly wrong the way our society treats sex.”
Three other couples we spoke to from decidedly more affluent backgrounds also rarely suffer from the issue and claim they never have at all. In fact Rohan*, a 28-year-old financial consultant who lives in his parents’ Mahalakshmi duplex, claims his parents have never questioned him having his girlfriends over to stay on occasion, though the women he’s been with have rarely ever extended the same hospitality. “There’s no way I would want their parents to know i’m with their daughter behind closed doors either way,” he laughs. Ask him if he’s ever lent his room to a friend in need and he says he’s never been asked but would probably think “it’s weird” if they did.
The monetary aspect also comes into play here because those who earn enough, needn’t worry about the lack of space. Motels, hotels and quick overnight stays at places like Lonavala are incredibly common and few have ever had trouble getting away with it though it comes with its own set of societal judgment. “I definitely don’t enjoy the sketchy looks every hotel owner invariably gives me. It makes me feel like a prostitute just for wanting to be alone with someone i’m in love with,” Meenakshi*, a 23-year-old graphic designer tells us, opening up a whole different pandora’s box that we’ve been expecting since we set out on these interviews. And her sentiments are echoed across the board by other couples we speak to who use the ‘hotel decoy.’
With cheaper motels, often available only on an hourly basis instead of a night, the truth is that the kids who are making use of them are constantly at the risk of police raids, many of whom use the couples’ fear of parental knowledge as a means to get bigger bribes.
We mindfully stayed away from offering our own opinions throughout the data collection and its presentation in an effort to present the facts, as we saw it, in a broader sociological context. Within the framework of the serious sexual violence that India’s grappling with today, we thought it was pressing to uncover where one of the more progressive Indian cities’ youth stood on the issues of sex and space. While we don’t believe that it has anything to directly do with rape, it’s clear that privacy (and acceptance) for young love is a multi-faceted issue that has a far-reaching impact on the construct of social relationships, sexual intimacy and basic human connections.
We’re forcing young people to “create” artificial spaces to compensate for the sparing scope of privacy that exists around them and this disillusionment is bound to affect their sense of intimacy. Most importantly, many we spoke to seem to treat sex as a quick means to find satisfaction, a game that must be won, rather than a personal moment of affection.
Yes, opinions and situations vary, they always do. But it’s clear that this is an issue that remains omnipresent. One of the few that pervades every section of society who has to make do with what they have. Let’s change the way we talk about sex, so we can change the way we think about it.
Data Collection & Research: Mandovi Menon, Shreya Vaidya, Meher Manda