TRVANDRUM, KERALA, INDIA. by REV. STEPHEN PARELLI. AUGUST 30, 2014.
Neelima Renjith of Trivandrum, Kerala, India
The young Indian woman and the train car seating arrangements
I had no idea the attractive young woman dressed in traditional Indian clothing was a journalist (photo at left; see her Facebook page). She sat at the window of the train across from the window where Jose and I sat. Our coach was a sleeping car. On her side of the coach, long bench seats faced each other with numbers overhead on the wall indicating seating for a total of six people, three on each bench. On our side of the coach, two single seats at the windows faced each other. An aisle down the train car separated our seating-for-two from her seating area for six.
Jose Ortiz (left) and Steve Parelli, Sleeper Coach, Train from Cochin to Trivandrum, Kerala, India. Here, the facing seats have been made into a bed.
The journey, not the destination
We were travelling in the beautiful state of Kerala, India, from Cochin to Trivandrum – a five and a half hour trip, from 10:00 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon. The travel agent in Fort Cochin who sold us our tickets two days before our return trip to Trivandrum was a bit puzzled as to why I requested the slow train especially since Jose and I would be catching an evening train the same day to travel further south to Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, where we would teach, for three days, at a seminary there (name of seminary withheld). It was about the journey, not the destination, I told the travel agent. We had travelled this rout before with its lush green vegetation, its many waterways, and interesting people at road intersections and station platforms all along the way. I had preferred a first class coach with seating apartments, but the travel agent had explained that a first class coach was not available on this rout at the time we were travelling. We settled for a sleeping car with seats facing each other and, with our maneuvering about the coaches until we found what we wanted for seating, we weren’t disappointed.
Our wedding anniversary
It was our wedding anniversary. The slow train ride through Kerala with our sitting together facing each other in seats just for two was our anniversary gift to one another. We cajoled each other; shared glances that said “I love you;” kept our visits brief with passengers that attempted to engage us in conversation (after all this was our anniversary); and enjoyed the landscape together taking our photos and exchanging comments about the passing scenery.
Asking the young woman to take our photo
Early into our trip, having caught the eye of the attractive young woman across the aisle from us, I asked her to please take our photo. She smiled gently and without hesitation as if to say Kerala is always hospitable to her traveling guests, she left her window and, sliding along the length of the bench seat so that she could take the camera from my outstretched arm, she kindly took our picture and then asked us to check the photo to see if it was to our liking. It was.
My habit of smiling at strangers
Throughout the trip, whenever I looked her way, I would smile a friendly smile if she happened to be looking in our direction. It is a custom of mine that I often smile at strangers if we happen to glance at one another. As a New Yorker who has spent his life riding the city subway, Jose found the practice very unconventional at first, even somewhat inconsiderate of another person’s space, as I would smile at times at strangers on the subway. But with the on-going smiles I received in return – often resulting in interesting conversations, he became a subway convert to the practice of judicially initiating smiles.
The others that occupied the benches had left; the sun was becoming oppressive
The attractive woman at the window was, from the outset of our trip from Cochin, seated across from another young woman who also wore traditional Indian dress. They appeared to be friends as they exchanged conversation while the one who took our photo read her book and the other occupied herself in some other way than reading. The view through their respective windows held little interest for them.
With about two hours remaining in the trip, and with the sun now beginning to enter our side of the southbound train, I debated in my head the possibility of moving to the seat at the opposite window across from the young attractive woman dressed in traditional Indian clothing who had taken our photo for us at the beginning of the trip. Her friend had left the train a couple stops earlier. The Indian men who were seated on the bench seats had all departed, too. There was no one else occupying the benches except her.
I sat myself across from the young Indian woman at the window
I wasn’t sure how appropriate it would be – that is, my not knowing the male-female customs in India – to seat myself across from her at the window of the train. The sun was pressing in more and more, and with my skin condition (melanoma twice) and healthy respect for the sun, I ventured to her side of the train.
Her feet were on the seat across from her and her head was slightly bowed toward the book she held at the small table before her. I politely told her the sun was chasing me away and I pointed to the pronounced spots on my arms and legs (I was wearing shorts) and briefly explained my health condition.
I asked her if it was ok to sit on the bench across from her and to take photos at the window. She agreed, again without hesitation, and carefully removed her feet from the seat I would now occupy. I told her this side of the train was best now for taking photos. She readily replied that “the lighting” was perfect. I was glad she understood me and that language was not a barrier as it often can be in India.
Initiating conversation with the young Indian woman
As we stopped and started at each of the stations, and as time quietly passed along with the sing-song of the rumbling tracks, I would show her a photo or two of the scenery I had just taken from the window. She was always very polite and only responded as I initiated conversation. She did not initiate talk herself. Observing this, I politely asked her if it was customary for a strange man like me to have conversation with an Indian woman like her.
“Why not,” she said, an expression that means it’s perfectly ok.
This was my third trip to India and, while I’ve had scores of conversations with Indian male strangers, I’ve never taken up conversation with an Indian female stranger. But here I was; a first experience. It was delightful. I soon realized, without asking her per se, that I was perhaps misunderstanding the relationship between Islamic women and male strangers, and Hindu women and male strangers. Apparently – although I haven’t sorted this out for sure – Indian Hindu women are as liberated as American women and can, in appropriate settings like this public train, engage in conversation with male strangers.
Her arranged marriage; my same-gender, gay marriage
As I continued to take and share my photos, I became more bold in my daring to ask personal questions. And for every question I asked of her, I volunteered information about myself. I have always felt that what one asks, one should be just as willing to share, otherwise it isn’t a conversation of equals.
We talked about her arranged marriage and her option to choose or refuse her parents’ proposed husband. In turn we talked about my gay marriage.
Gay and Christian in Kerala
In bits and pieces, between photos, as she seemed to show interest, I told her about our Saturday visit to Cochin and the filming of a documentary by the LGBT community there called Queerala. I told her about the articles on Jose and me in India Today (September 26, 201, “Sex and The Church) (see related blog), and Trivandrum Theological Forum and their translation of The Children Are Free into Malayalam to demonstrate how the conversation of being gay and Christian is coming to Kerala.
I shared, of course, my personal story. She gave polite attention. Then she asked me one question; it was about my now ex-wife; how did she manage through all of this. I told her.
At the end of our journey, I am astonished to learn I’ve been talking to a TV anchor woman
As our train was nearing its destination, I asked her her level of education. Yes, she was a university graduate. But she told me no more than that. So I asked her further what her profession was, if any.
She told me she was like her husband, whose career she had discussed with me earlier, a journalist. But while his field of journalism was in reporting and uncovering crime, she was a TV news anchor woman in Kerala.
I was completely astonished. I had no idea. This unassuming quiet young attractive woman dressed in traditional Indian clothing was a TV journalist. All this time I had been telling my life story a TV anchor woman.
We exchange contact information
As the train was pulling into Trivandrum – its final stop, I quickly exchanged phone numbers with her and email addresses and asked her to please consider doing an article on gay and Christian in Kerala. She agreed showing the same quiet interest she had shown all along the trip.
Within a day or two we were Facebook friends and we texted throughout the week. I was in Nagercoil and she was in Trivandrum. On our last day in Kerala, she was in Cochin taking an exam, and I was in Trivandrum packing for our flight home to the USA.
Steve Parelli (left) with Neelima, TV journalist with Doordarshan broadcasting
A possible forthcoming article
Don’t worry about the forthcoming article, she texted me the morning of our flight. Through text messaging she told me she had the link to the India Today article and other links from the Other Sheep Exec Site website (2010 visit, 2011 visit) and that with that information she could create a story. She texted we would be in touch.
Tell Kerala we are their sons and daughters
I texted back: “Wonderful, thank you, and good luck on your exam. Tell Kerala we gays are your loving sons and daughters. We are just like everyone else. Love us please as we are, as we do love you our parents, our friends, our religious communities.”
This article was written Saturday morning, August 30, 2014, in Room 704 of Classic Avenue Hotel, Trivandrum, Kerala, India, and was published to the Internet from the same location and date. Photos – by Rev. Stephen Parelli, all taken from the train, were added to this article on Monday, September 1, 2014, Bronx, New York.
Photo at right: Taken from the train, a Kerala woman with umbrella.