This is from my (much missed) Mumbai Mirror column and it is a true story of me and a rickshaw ride and it is even more specially appropriate now because from my study window I can see straight into the flat of the people living in the building opposite and every evening, it's most charming, when the mosque sounds out end-of-fast time, I see my window people go and eat and it makes me feel happy to see people on a schedule. I just hope they can't see all our shenanigans (our house is lower than theirs and it's harder to peer downwards, something to do with physics) and me in my boxers and a t-shirt. I do avert my eyes often but they ARE right in my vantage point and they're this huge family, lots of kids, some young women, a matriach and a patriach. I love my Window Family. I saw Mr Window outside one day when I was coming home and he was parking his car (their boundary wall is the same as ours) and I didn't recognise him until he was in the window again.
This actually has very little to do with my column, in retrospect. Oh well, two stories for the price of one, eh?
“We call this stretch chor bazaar,” said an exceedingly talkative auto driver to us the other day as we put-putted our way past the Bandra Reclamation stretch. I don’t like talking when I’m commuting, so I made a non-committal mm-hmm noise, but he wasn’t to be discouraged. “Do you know why it’s called chor bazaar?” he asked, chortling at the thought of the punch line he was about to deliver. I shrugged. “Because it’s full of the thieves of love!”
It was an interesting way to look at it. At any given time—rain or shine or horrible mugginess—the picturesque stretch of ocean and land and the winking of lights from the promised (EDIT: This was back in the day, but you know what I mean) Bandra-Worli sea link call couples to it like homing pigeons. They’re everywhere, these thieves of love, sitting huddled under umbrellas on a bike or if they’re lucky, parked in cars, so all you can see is the silhouette of two heads leaning towards each other. And it’s not like they’re doing anything very raunchy either. They just add to the landscape—usually a man standing up and a woman lying across his chest, her arms around him.
“How does anyone in Bombay ever have sex?” I remember asking a friend of mine when I first moved to the city. There seems to be no empty spaces, and practically everyone who grew up here continue to live with their parents because of the astronomical real estate costs. Unless you’re an immigrant or are lucky enough to have inherited masses of property, chances are your scope for ‘action’ stops with the furtive grope behind Rizvi College.
Why are we as a nation so conflicted about sex? Sex is everywhere—it’s in the billboards you see on your way to work, it’s the cut of a backless blouse or the shimmer of a bronzed shoulder, it’s the patting your fellow player on the bottom after a game of cricket, it’s in the young men on roadsides and on buses who don’t hesitate to undress and rape you with their eyes and it’s even (yes!) in your parents, as fuddy-duddy as they may appear to you, the fact that you are here in a country of teeming millions surely is testament to how much people are having sex every day, every hour, every second? And yet we hide it away as much as possible, pretend it doesn’t exist, pretend that copulation is so far beneath us that a pure person of “good moral values” may never ever think about creating other pure people.
It’s the elephant in the living room mentality, I guess. Since it is everywhere, we feel no need to talk about it. Since we can take pretty educated guesses about the activities of couples on the Reclamation road, we feel there is no need to discuss it in polite society. And, possibly there isn’t. It doesn’t exactly make for excellent dinner party conversation (except most dinner parties I have been to make a career out of talking about this very thing) and it remains in the wink-wink nudge-nudge arena of dirty jokes. You are only permitted to think, talk about and actually have sex when you’re safely, happily married to a safe, happy person, but if you get knocked up? Uh-oh, the looks of embarrassment abound, sometimes I’ve even noticed the lecherous looks on trains and things, and I think, “Really? Maybe there’s a pregnant chick fetish I haven’t heard about.” Apparently, there’s masses of pregnant woman porn on the internet (why am I not surprised?). I guess the logic is, if you’ve had sex with one person, you should be okay with having sex with several.
That brings me back to Talkative Rick Driver. He continued his little Bandra tour as though he could not hear me muttering about how long I had lived in Bombay and how I already knew all this stuff. “The cops come and arrest them!” he said gleefully, “And all those poor chutiyas have to go to the police station!” He slowed down a little bit so we could gawk at this part of Bombay tourism. The couples didn’t even notice us. I felt suddenly like we were visitors to a zoo or something and at any time were about to toss peanuts to the performing monkeys. There were even some forlorn looking sets of boys alone, looking wistfully at all the loving that was going on around them, chugging Coke out of bottles and chain smoking. It was a suspended parallel universe which I with all my oh-I-live-alone-and-oh-I-am-liberated-and-oh-I-can-say-sex-without-flinching had no part in.
“This is where men line up every weekend,” he said next. I rolled my eyes. My fellow traveler laughed. “Do you know why they line up?” he asked, turning around to face us and narrowly avoiding hitting a cyclist. “Because it’s Salman Khan’s house,” I snapped, hoping to snub him. Far from it. He looked even more delighted to have such a well-versed audience. “Yes!” he crowed, “And then he comes out in his towel says hello-ta-ta and leaves! And these men just wait for that.”
I remember back in high school when my school building faced a row of flats, every day for a week (until a teacher intervened) there used to be commotion as all the boys gathered towards the gate and gazed up at the faraway houses. The reason? A lady known for doing yoga naked in her balcony came out just around the time we had lunch break. I could never see her, except perhaps a faint shadow waving in the distance but I was assured she was young and hot. (Later, the story changed to old and wrinkled, but these were teenage boys and she was a naked woman, you can hardly blame them). That, I can understand lining up for. But bare-chested Salman Khan? Really? When you can see him do that with less time wasted just by borrowing one of his movies? And when most of the men who line up outside his house would swear they were straight? Is this what our twisted passive-aggressive approach to sex is bringing about?
It’s a scary thought.