“Is this your first time in India?”
“Yes.” I replied, “Do you live here?”
“I am actually American, but my family are from Kerala, I am here to visit some of them”.
“Sorry I have lost my voice” I breathed huskily, but there was something about her openness to talk to me that drew me to persevere with the conversation. We were travelling by plane from Delhi to Udaipur which takes just over an hour, from here I was to continue my journey into the foothills of Rajasthan to learn about the local communities.
“This is my younger sister, my other sister is sitting towards the front with her husband” her name escapes me, but the conversation which followed will stay with me for a long time. She seemed very eager to talk to me, so remembering she was American I led the conversation towards the recent election, this was also my way of determining her political stance. “I didn’t vote, but I am glad Donald Trump won”. Surprised, I took a sip of my bottled water, a gesture for her to continue. “He is anti-corruption and anti-establishment, he is a great underdog for America, an honest man who will do great things”.
“To me, a white male billionaire who makes damaging remarks about women, ethnic minorities, immigrants and LGBT people, is not an underdog, in fact, he is the epitome of an establishment and a system I am against”. I countered.
Now we had established our different political views, but the discussion continued, both interested in each other.
She was around 26, Indian but spoke with a soft American accent. Her approach seemed quite frantic, as though she really wanted to tell me things. She began telling me about her childhood, she had grown up in Kuwait, raised a Christian by her grandparents, she told me about how they secretly prayed in a Muslim country, something that was punishable by jail time. She told me how she grew up angry with her mother for not being there for her. Her mother was a nurse in India for the first 14 years of her life. Why she decided to tell me about herself in such detail I don’t know. Lots of people confide in me in random situations, on the train, in restaurants on the bus and I often get the remark “people always talk to you, you’re like a magnet”. But this time it felt different, it was like she was drawn to me, and like she knew she had limited time to tell me so much about herself, even when I barely said much back because of my sore throat, and even with such contrasting views on the world, she wanted to speak to me.
She said the anger she felt towards her mother had led her towards Jesus, she told me about her first ‘vision’ something she said she only told a couple of people. The ‘vision’ happened when she was 7 years old, her mother was visiting and she wanted to use the bathroom -located outside the home – in the middle of the night. The light was broken and she was scared to go alone so she asked her mother to go with her. Her mother said ‘no, stop being weak’. In the darkness she cried until a man with thorns on his head appeared with a stool, she described in great detail how he got onto the stool and fixed the light and then led her to the bathroom. The next morning her sisters and mother awoke and marvelled at the fixed light, while only she knew what had happened.
I think of myself as a spiritual person, and do not follow a religion, I take the parts of religion I feel resonate with me such as Karma, but I don’t believe in things like sin, and a set of rules. I didn’t want my opinion to influence her, probably because I felt like she needed to believe in this ‘vision’. So I feigned a neutral expression and didn’t respond to her story. I don’t believe her story, but I felt sorry for her child-like conclusion and felt it would be cruel to disagree with something she found comfort in. I saw the 7-year-old child in her eyes, just wanting someone to come and look after her, and finding relief in what she told herself had happened.
She moved the conversation onto sin, and I prompted her about homosexuality, she immediately replied that this was a sin and wrong. “Did you know that there has been a study conducted onto the minds of gay people’? She went on, “they have physiological problems, and part of their brains are damaged”. Usually, I would try and educate people like this, or laugh off their ridiculousness and promptly end the conversation. But I felt a duty to listen because she had confided in me, so I let her carry on.
“You can’t be gay and be a Christian, Jesus knows the truth, there is only one truth, and this is wrong.” She went on getting wide-eyed and excited about the topic. I talked about how it has only recently been accepted in the UK, and there are many people who have been married and had kids who have now come out as gay because they feel empowered, and how this happens around the world. I talked about how it is estimated that 1 in 4 people are gay or bisexual, and how I presumed it to be higher, because no one has been brought up to be gay, most people have been raised being told being gay is weird or wrong, whereas everyone has been brought up and told they must be straight, so the amount of people ‘coming out’ cannot be considered conditioned.
I talked about my stance, which is ‘live and let live’. She said she hoped I would find Jesus, because the people who engaged in such things or enabled it would not go to heaven, to which I responded that I didn’t believe in heaven and hell. This conversation went on for a while, where she tried to educate me into becoming homophobic, she talked about the inability to reproduce, and I explained that there was a lot more to sex than reproducing and that there was a lot more to being a parent than just being a mother or father, something I thought she could understand based on our previous conversation. She told me that although she wouldn’t actively tell gay people how to live their lives, she wouldn’t want to befriend them or talk to them.
We talked about our travels, she had travelled a lot which surprised me for someone so closed minded. It reaffirmed her child-like ways, to just believe what she was told, an obedience very different to my own British culture, where (most of us) question what we are told at school or on the news, and we rebel against things which control or oppress. I told her about volunteering work I had done in Ethiopia working on gender equality and some other places I had been.
She opened up more about her life and showed me a picture of her priest, someone she saw as a father figure, and told me about her school life and how she struggled to make friends with people.
As we neared the end of the flight, she said that she had really enjoyed getting to know me and would love to see me again. “I really hope you find Jesus” she reiterated. I scrolled through my phone and found a photograph of a beautiful blonde woman, smiling on the escalator in London underground. “I have something to tell you about myself”. I said.
She looked intrigued.
“I am in a relationship with this woman, and have been for almost two years”. I said plainly.
“Oh my god” she shrieked and put her hands over her mouth. “I am so embarrassed”.
“Don’t be” I said. “I just want you to learn from this, I am someone who spreads love and equality in the world, I open my mind to learn about other people, I travel, I have a great job, and I am in love with a woman.”
She paused, then put her hand on my knee, the first physical contact we had the entire journey. “I feel like it is a going to be a rough landing, we may all need to hold hands”. I felt like this was her way of apologising and symbolising her acceptance of my life choice.
I thought this journey was so interesting, because she started the conversation trying to enlighten me, but by hardly saying anything, it was me educating her.