How love survives in the world's least romantic city
On the tip of leafy Malabar Hill, with a sweeping view of the Queen’s Necklace and the sea, once sat Naaz Café. A rickety greasy spoon and a big draw for courting couples of 1960s Mumbai.
Romantic and picture-perfect as Naaz Café was, the rumor went that no affair conducted there ever fructified. The jinx was self-defeating. The café was erased and a water tank constructed in its place.
There are cities that seem made for lovers. Mumbai is not one of them.
Tar-lined highways, dusty taxis, seedy cafes and tacky beachfront hotels -- the Mumbai lover has made these his natural habitat and home.
Most young couples can’t afford homes of their own given the space crunch, lovers are shaken down in parks by pesky cops, a regressive regional party frowns upon Valentine’s Day and the moral police have all but pinned Cupid to a cork-board through his eyes.
And yet, driven out of homes and bedrooms the city’s lovers have created their own spaces of seclusion, where for a few brief moments they can build a world of their own. Here's where the action is.
Back to the road
One of the most curious things about Mumbai is the fact that its courting couples think that the simple act of turning their back to the crowd renders them invisible.
Which is why on any given day or night, you will see twosomes entirely entwined together, on Marine Drive, while behind them traffic roars on one of the metro’s busiest highways.
In the same manner, the Mahim curve of the Bandra-Worli sea-link is the latest asphalt addition to Mumbai’s landscape of love. Couples park their bikes at this particular bend while half the city drives past them on the way home from work.
Suburban desperadoes have figured that if you turn your back on the Bandra homes of Bollywood celebrities Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Rekha and pick a dry spot on the smelly rocks on Bandra’s Bandstand, a few hours of privacy will be yours, until a kill-joy (and bribe-seeking) cop brings your canoodling to a close.
And of course, if exhibitionism is your thing there are always the Juhu and Chowpatty beaches.
The sun, the sand, and the sea and a hotel of a similar name. Need we say more?
Hotel, motel, sea-view
But every lover knows that there are times when a little more privacy is required and so he checks in to a hotel, with no reservations.
In the days before Alibaug became the Hamptons of India, kids whose parents didn’t have weekend homes would flock to Madh Island’s seedy motels where the lights were low and the sheets were grimy but the management was complicit.
With Madh area gaining notoriety because of some run-ins with the law there, it’s lost its perch as the first resort for common lustful lovers in Mumbai.
For those south-side, raging hormones can be assuaged in sundry flea-by-night, rent-by-the-hour Colaba hotels.
And for lovers who like a beach view to do it to, Mumbai’s legendary two- and three-star Juhu hotels, with their dubious decor, ersatz crowd and panoramic view of the Arabian Sea are the perennial first choice.
The beachfront Manoribel is where the city’s boho crowd gets its rocks off.
Run by a PLU (people like us) management, the Goan fish curry, Mangalorean pickles and rustic cottages have given romancing couples their money’s worth through the decades.
Private bubbles in public areas
Mumbai is also known for the innovative public/private partnerships its lovers forge.
The last row of theaters, for instance, has been colonized by courting couples for as long as cinemas existed.
Multiplex single-screen, air-conditioned or rat-infested -- it matters not. As long as the lights are low and the dialogues are loud, for the price of two tickets you can get some sense of seclusion.
Similarly, the backseats of taxis have long been a made welcome refuge by those who have nowhere else to go.
With cab drivers who are three-quarters mercenary and one quarter empathetic no one really complains as long as the meter’s ticking away.
That's love in Mumbai.