Long walk to freedom January 19, 2008Posted by qmediawatch in Kerala, Suicides.
Last month, Roma, 20, and her girlfriend, Geeta, 22, were travelling from Thiruvananthapuram to Palghat in an unreserved compartment of the Chennai Mail. At Kottayam, two girls got into the train. “The moment I saw them, I knew that there was something wrong,” says Roma. “They looked very disturbed.” Since the compartment was full, Roma was unable to talk to them.
At Ernakulam, the bogie emptied, and only Roma, Geeta, and the two girls remained. Once the train started moving, Roma asked them where they are going and the girls replied that they were going to Chennai. When she asked where they would be staying once they reached their destination, they did not reply. “I knew they had never been to Chennai,” she says. “They were village girls and looked lost.” Since they were unwilling to open up, Roma told them she worked for Sangama, a Bangalore-based organisation for sexuality minorities (www.sangama.org).
On Sangama’s visiting card, she wrote her mobile number on the back, and said that if they had any problems, they could call her. At Palghat station, Roma made one last plea through the window: “Whatever problems you are facing, please don’t think of committing suicide.”
The next day at 8 a.m., the girls called Roma from Chennai. They confirmed what she had suspected: they were lesbians. One of the girls said, “We love each other, but we are facing a lot of problems from our parents. So, we have run away from home.”
Astonishingly, this was their fourth trip on the Chennai Mail. Every time, the train arrived at Chennai, they would spend the day at the station and take the evening train back. They would reach Thiruvananthapuram by noon and within a couple of hours would take the train to Chennai once again.
“They had Rs 900 with them,” says Roma. Once the money got over, they were planning to commit suicide. Roma told the girls she would get back and called a staffer at Sangama, who agreed to take in the two girls. Later, Roma told the girls, “There are several Malayali lesbians living at Sangama and boarding and lodging is free for the first few months. It is a better option than committing suicide.” The girls took her advice and took the night train to Bangalore. And for the past few weeks, they have been staying at Sangama, thanks to Roma.
The 5′ 3″ tall Roma is petite and fragile and lives in a three-room house with a terrace in front. An overhanging tree provides a much-needed shade.
Inside the house, there is very little furniture: a bed placed against one wall, a table against another. Roma has been living with Geeta for the past one and a half years and they do freelance jobs in data composing to earn a living. Like many lesbians, she also went through a traumatic time.
In Tiruvalla, where she lived, two years ago, Roma got friendly with a neighbour, Sana, who was the same age as her. “It was not a lesbian relationship because there was never a sexual angle to it,” she says. “We used to write letters which contained sentences that implied a deep friendship.” Sana’s brother saw the letters and created a ruckus. Feeling under tremendous pressure, they fled to Thiruvananthapuram. The parents informed the police who managed to trace them because of a call Roma made on Sana’s mobile phone.
“At the court, I said, we were both 18 and wanted to live on our own,” says Roma. “The court released us, but the police forced us to sign a statement stating that we wanted to return to our families.”
What was most stunning to Roma was that when the girls were being sent back to Tiruvalla, it was in a convoy of jeeps. “The police behaved as if we were dangerous criminals, when, actually, we were just two young girls who liked each other,” she says. “I cannot forget the experience.”
Sana wilted under family pressure and got married. Roma, however, was madeof sterner stuff. She left home and stayed with friends in Kollam. There, she met Geeta and fell in love. “Today, my parents, as well as Geeta’s, have accepted our sexual orientation,” says Roma. “So, our situation is bearable.”
However, despite family support, Roma knows that it is dangerous to come out as a lesbian in Kerala. “Geeta and I are living in a rented apartment,” she says. “If the landlord comes to know we are lesbians, he will immediately ask us to vacate the house.” She says that she knows of many lesbians who, fearful of society’s condemnation, have got married but are unhappy. They continue to pine for their woman lovers. Others, who are less resilient, and lack support, easily reach the depths of despair and commit suicide. “In Kerala, there is no mental or physical space to be a lesbian,” she says.
Roma is getting ready to go out on an errand, when her two friends, Meena, 30, and Lata, 42, drop in. While Meena looks delicate, with slim arms and legs, Lata is broad-shouldered and has a confident look. They have been living together for six years now. “During all this time, we have not spent a single night apart,” says Lata. “I cannot sleep if I do not feel the warmth of Meena’s body next to me.”
Lata says that, from childhood, she was always attracted to women. She had an affair with another student when she was in Class six. “We had a physical and emotional connection.”
However, that did not last. By the time she was in Class ten, her family came to know about her same-sex attraction and pressured her to get married. But she said no. However, this resistance began taking an emotional toll on her. In despair, she consulted a psychiatrist, who told her that lesbianism is an innate trait.
Eventually, Lata left her home and moved into a hostel. It was there that she met Meena. “When I saw Meena for the first time, I was not attracted to her,” she says. “But, after a while, I got friendly, and I told her my life story. Immediately, Meena showed an interest in me.”
At that time, Meena, who was an abandoned child, was looking for an anchor in her life. She says that she is physically and emotionally attracted to Lata. “She is a good partner,” says Meena. “Lata shows a lot of affection, but she can be rude and short-tempered. She is very suspicious and extremely possessive.”
Lata says she is scared she will lose Meena. “That is why I am so possessive. I am very happy now.” But what if Meena, who is 12 years younger, finds another partner? “If she leaves me, I will commit suicide,” says Lata, her face expressionless. “I have very strong feelings for Meena. We have gone through much happiness and sorrow together. At my age, I don’t think I will get such a nice girl like Meena again.”
Meena entwines her fingers in Lata’s, looks deeply into her companion’s eyes, and says, “I will never leave you.” They sit next to each other, on the bed, their shoulders and legs touching, and are always holding hands. Later, in the evening, when they stand on the terrace — the sky is silvery grey and a gentle breeze is blowing — Meena leans gently and places her face on Lata’s shoulder. The older woman gives a tender smile. Then Meena caresses Lata’s hair and the minutes pass in a blissful silence.
However, it is a temporary bliss. In the hostel where they stay, there are suspicions that they are lesbians. A few inmates have taunted them. The hostel administrators are trying to evict them. “But we are holding firm,” says Lata. “We will fight all those who oppose our relationship.” When Meena hears this, she gives a supportive smile.
At lunchtime, Divya, 40, comes in. She is the driving force of the group and carries a book, Sexualities, which is a collection of papers on sexuality in India. She has published papers herself and is committed to fighting for minority sexual rights in Kerala. At the outset, she makes it clear that she would be uncomfortable with personal questions “of the voyeuristic kind”. So, it is a factual Q & A with her.
Q. What is the most common experience for lesbians?
A. It is the pressure to get married. The traditional notion of family life is very powerful, even for somebody who just wants to remain single. Another problem is to find a partner who will actually stay with you. If same-sex couples tend to break up more easily, it is because they have to endure a lot of social pressure. It takes a huge amount of courage to have such a relationship in Kerala. Many feel it is best to leave the state.
Q. Is Kerala society changing or does it continue to remain hypocritical?
A. It is both. In the last five years, more and more same-sex organisations have come up. There is a greater and positive visibility in the media. I am meeting more people who say that their parents and friends have accepted their preferences. It is good news, but there is a long way to go. We want to link same-sex rights with general sexual rights: the right to choose one’s sexuality.
(All names, identities and locations have been changed)