Around a decade ago, when I was a university student in Mumbai living on a budget as disappointing as my Economics grades, the toughest part of my life was not figuring out how to cram for exams at the last possible second or how to get through an early morning class after a night of disgusting LIITs. It was digging out places where I could make out with my college sweetheart.
India’s tiny apartments meant that neither of us had our own bedrooms back at home. Even for those friends who did, hyper-vigilant Indian parents made sure you didn’t just bring home someone of the opposite sex and lock your room. We couldn’t afford a hotel, even the seedy sort which made you look for hidden cameras.
And so we’d find refuge in public spaces – parks, cinema halls, the boulders lining Mumbai’s seafronts, even stairwells of security-free buildings. The possibility of getting caught made all the heavy petting thrilling, but in a country where open expressions of love can also invite violence, fear was a constant accompanying emotion.
Even the city of Mumbai, arguably the safest and most progressive in the country, made one thing clear: Public displays of affection, especially between those not sanctified by the holy union of marriage, ran counter to Indian tradition and sanskaar (an indicator of family values).
A decade later, not much has changed.
In yet another clampdown on young lovers who often just want a space to spend some time together, a prominent public park in the southeastern city of Hyderabad put up a sign banning the entry of “unmarried couples.”
J. Muralidhar, deputy director of the municipal corporation’s Urban Biodiversity Wing, told ThePrint that the decision to put up the banner came after “‘n’ number of calls from citizens complaining about couples involved in indecent physical activity like cuddling,” especially at night.
“We tried all means to stop couples from behaving in such an indecent way in public,” he said. “They are cuddling, expressing love to each other in a physical way… is it not embarrassing?”
Thankfully, the decision drew such widespread outrage (and gold class memes) that the authorities were forced to take down the banner on Thursday. Calling the ban “unwarranted" and “unconstitutional,” Indians online slammed the authorities for imposing a “new-level of moral policing.”
Although the banner has been taken down, local authorities said cops would be patrolling the park to help maintain its “serene” atmosphere.
This is, of course, not the first time young couples in public spaces have been targeted. News archives are littered with dozens of such accounts – be it a couple who was beaten up for hugging in public transport, converting parks into “children-only” spaces to prevent young people from accessing them, or laying traps for couples who could then be extorted from.
The idea of public parks has always been that all people – no matter the colour of their skin, age, income level, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity – have access to open spaces, a rarity in a country with one of the highest population densities in the world. While these become unsafe spaces for lovers looking for an iota of privacy, marginalised communities like queer people, minorities, or those from working class backgrounds are even more vulnerable out there.
“My boyfriend literally gave me a peck on the lips once, when we were in a park in Bengaluru,” Sandeepan, who wished to withhold his last name because he hasn’t come out to his parents yet, told VICE. “Some goons saw us, slapped us hard across our faces, threatened to tell our parents and take us to the cops, and only left us alone after we paid them a hefty bribe.”
Cops, themselves, have been known to harass and extort money from couples on several occasions, with married couples able to escape such situations far easier.
This often escalates on the biggest day of grand gestures, Valentine’s Day, which has seen goons and cops alike punishing lovers for indulging in the product of a “rotten imported culture” from the West. They’ve smeared black powder on couples’ faces, beaten them up, even forced them to marry or face violence.
Now, as a married person myself, I have been able to fall back on the protection that this sacred institution offers. Just before the pandemic hit, my husband and I were waiting in our car for a friend to join us, laughing and maybe kissing, when a guy passing by on a bike dismounted and asked us to flash our IDs.
When a similar thing had happened a decade ago, I remember almost shitting my pants, disengaging from the embrace of my then boyfriend, and profusely apologising to the man who had threatened to not just take us to the cops but also tell our parents (weirdly, the latter option can be scarier for many young South Asians).
This time, however, our age, wisdom, and also the societal sanctioning of our marriage gave us the courage to drag the threatening man to the cops ourselves. There, too, we were asked whether we were married, because I did not carry on me any symbols that married women in India often do. It was frustrating to answer with a yes before the cops would admonish the man, who’d thought he could get away with chastising an affectionate couple.
I’m glad I feel much more at ease displaying my affection in public now. But to have to rely on my marital status to feel safe in a public space is still disconcerting, at the very least.
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