The nun saw him for the first time in 1995 in a photograph in a news story. She carefully unfurled the newspaper that she had used to cover her prayer book, and read about the young man who had been sentenced to life on the charge of killing a nurse. Every time she closed the book after prayers, her eyes would linger on the report. Did that grainy image, intruding often in her moments of reflection, stir something in her? Did she know then that it would irretrievably change her life?
On December 22, 1994, a 22-year-old man, Melvin Paduva, caught a train home to Thrippunithara near Kochi from Mumbai, where he worked as a quality controller with a textile firm. A graduate in economics and a diploma-holder in textile management, Paduva had joined the firm in 1993 and this was his second journey home. On that train were Celinamma, a 23-year-old nurse from Manimala in Kottayam who was working in Mumbai, and her colleague, Remol K John. Soon after the train left Ernakulam on the morning of December 24, Celinamma went to the toilet. Her body would later be found there. Next day, Paduva was arrested on charges of strangling the nurse.
On August 10, 1995, Paduva was convicted of the crime and awarded life imprisonment. From the sub-jail in Kottayam, he was shifted to the Viyyur central prison in Thrissur. Paduva did not appeal. He says that while it wasn’t because of money issues, and even though his family members wanted him to move an appeal, “I had resigned myself to fate. I accepted the verdict. I did not feel I should fight for my innocence.”
One day, a letter arrived. He remembers the date, December 16, 1995. The sender was Sister Beatrice, Kochi, and the address: Melvin Paduva, Central Prison, Viyyur.
Beatrice had joined the order, Congregation of Teresian Carmelites, in 1992 and was at the time working as a nurse in a church-run hospital in Kochi. “I put myself in the place of the victim and the ‘villain’. I had a strong intuition that Paduva was innocent, and that he should not be left in jail,” she says. She wrote the letter to Paduva, addressing him as “son”, and sent him Christmas greetings and soothing words laced with Biblical verses, telling him to pray to god and repent his sins. Paduva dismissed the letter.
A week later, when his mother, Veroni William, came to visit him, Paduva told her about the letter. Pained at her son’s long silences, she told him: “If you don’t want to speak with me, share what’s on your mind with someone else.” Paduva’s first letter to Beatrice was blunt. “I wrote to the nun not to write to me again, that my life was over. But I asked her to give advice to others not to deviate from the righteous path.”
Beatrice wasn’t disheartened. She wrote week after week, letters filled with advice, anecdotes, drawing on psalms and religious texts, and books she read voraciously. Soon, they started discussing contemporary social and political issues in what became a bi-weekly exchange. “There was little in the letters suggesting even a distant indication of love. As the nun had addressed me as a son, I had the impression that she was an old woman,” says Paduva, now 41.
The faded blue inland letters, which the post office issued for missives longer than a postcard, were not enough to accommodate all that they wanted to say to each other. In one of her letters, Paduva recalls Beatrice writing, “Seeing the skeletal trees in winter, don’t think leaves will not sprout again. This is only an interval. Spring is at the end of the tunnel.”
By the time Paduva became entitled to his first parole, of 10 days, in March 1997, they had been in touch for more than a year. They arranged their first meeting, with Beatrice giving him a number at the hospital to call. He visited the Kochi hospital carrying a few books as gifts, and went to the ward where he was told Beatrice was on duty. Paduva spotted four-five nuns in their white habits. He walked up to them, past cots, patients, bystanders, trolleys and drip stands, and approached one of the nuns, asking for Sister Beatrice.
It was her. Paduva says he had expected to find an old woman, “a motherly figure”, as “Beatrice had never shared her personal details or age”. This was a young, pretty woman, with a high forehead and beautiful eyes. He suddenly felt very shy.
As Beatrice introduced Paduva to the other nuns, she hid her own surprise. “That was the first time I had met a prisoner. I expected him to be an able-bodied man with a tonsured head—like in the films. The frail figure was a surprise,” she says.
Paduva did not spend much time at the ward. Asking Beatrice not to write to him any more, he left in a hurry. He told his mother he would not meet the nun again. “I told her Beatrice was young.”
After that meeting, their minds were in a whirl. Veroni too guessed that their relationship was deeper than they realised, and persuaded Paduva to meet Beatrice again the next day. They were silent and faltering, but it was clear to Veroni, that they were falling in love. She tried to dissuade them, pointing out that the church would never agree. Beatrice said she was planning to inform her superiors at the convent about her intention to quit the order.
A few days later, Paduva returned to the Central Jail at Viyyur. He learnt that the church officials had got wind of this budding love. “Some jail officials told me it would be better if we ended our ties,” he says.
Beatrice too was under pressure. “As a nun, I had lived a life fully dedicated to the profession. But a day before Paduva was slated to return to jail, I informed the Mother Superior that I wanted to quit the order.” The same day, Beatrice was sent for a week-long “meditation” at a retreat to reconsider her decision. The move to quit nunhood created a furore in Beatrice’s family. From attending Sunday service to being a part of the choir, the church had been an inseparable part of her life. In her moment of turmoil, Beatrice says she turned to God. “My prayer was that He should reveal His plan for me. I believed that God’s plan would come true, whatever it may be.”
When Beatrice didn’t change her mind, the congregation sent her to two more retreats. She was also transferred to another hospital. “I heard about the plans to shift me to a distant location. Somehow, I got the telephone number for Paduva’s house in Thrippunithara and asked his mother to come,” she says.
On June 3, 1997, Veroni went to the hospital where Beatrice was working. Seeing her, Beatrice broke down. The two decided to visit the advocate who had represented Paduva for assistance.
At the lawyer’s office, his staff bought her a set of clothes. She changed out of her habit. There would be no going back.
Beatrice started living in Paduva’s home. “The only thing I carried with me from the convent were my certificates, rolled up, and an umbrella. We destroyed my old photographs, those taken during the vestition ceremony, those in which I was in a nun’s habit,” she says.
Allegedly under the influence of the church, the police tried again to keep the two apart. Her letters to him did not reach Paduva, who did not know that Beatrice had moved to his home. They decided to smuggle a message in with the money Veroni sent to her son. In one such money order, of a few hundred rupees, Beatrice wrote in the message section: “I have reached your home.”
Paduva now started counting hours to his next, one-week parole, which was 60 days away. He was told that he would be denied the parole unless Beatrice left his home. On July 16, 1997, Paduva shifted to the Central Jail at Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram. Expectedly, he was denied parole. Veroni and Beatrice petitioned then chief minister EK Nayanar. Not only was Paduva granted the parole but it was extended to 45 days, under the special discretionary powers of the CM. A few days before the 45 days ended, Paduva got married to Beatrice in a court.
She then tried to mend fences with the church, and was told that as a penance for “the sin of registered marriage (as it had not been conducted in a church)”, she should lead a model Christian life. So, on April 14, 1998, when Paduva was on another parole, the couple solemnised their marriage in church. Paduva claimed he had to attend a relative’s marriage to get parole.
From then on, he would be let out on short paroles, every six months. On January 11, 2000, their son was born. Beatrice, who continued to live with Veroni, had by that time started working as a nurse in a private hospital in Kochi. A second son was born in 2005.
In 2010, when Paduva completed 15 years as a prisoner, the family started looking at ways to get him a premature release. In February 2011, Beatrice moved the Kerala High Court seeking a directive to call for all records relating to the release of life convicts. She argued that Paduva was eligible for a premature release, having served in prison for 14 years. Acting on her petition, on March 23, 2011, the high court extended the parole Paduva was on at the time for two more months.
When Paduva returned to jail, officials told him to remain on extended parole until further orders, citing the petition pending in the high court. As jail authorities did not give this in writing, Paduva waited at the jail gate for a day before returning home. Out of the prison, Paduva joined a private firm as a manager. In June 2012, Beatrice left for Malaysia, with a job as a nurse.
But a year later, the prison authorities issued a warrant against him, accusing him of going into hiding after his parole ran out. “They had laid a trap. I was arrested and taken back to the prison,” says Paduva.
While he had spent a lifetime behind bars, he says, this arrest was particularly painful. He had been out now for over two years and it was the first time, his sons, now aged 14 and nine, realised their father was going to prison. In the past, they had been told that he was out of town on work.
In Malaysia, Beatrice wrote letters again to her incarcerated husband, asking him not to get despondent and to pray to god. Back home, social activists and political leaders took up his case. On December 21, he was released. Beatrice gave up her job and returned home.
In a spartan three-bedroom family home at Thrippunithura live the characters of this most unusual of love stories. Having come so far, they now have the luxury of being just another married couple. As Paduva talks, Beatrice gets up often to attend to her sick mother-in-law, their two teenaged sons, and to fetch snacks from the kitchen.
Neither speak about Paduva’s long stay in jail and the delayed release, calling it god’s will. “My youth is gone, I’ve lost 19 years. So we want to rest for some time,” he says. There is one thing that they wish to do—and it is the only time they mention her. In the coming days, they plan to visit the family of the nurse killed in the train, Celinamma.