Neighbours and relatives describe her as a devout Christian who religiously read the Bible during parish prayer meetings. Friends call her a modern girl who loved everything Western, be it music or dressing. And school teachers remember her as a hardworking girl who made them proud by scoring first rank in school in Class XII CBSE commerce exams with 94%.
Born in an affluent family in Kochi, Merin Jacob's (22) change from a devout Christian to a radicalised Muslim, who questioned everything Christian and criticised idol worship was too sudden and shocking for friends and relatives to apprehend.
They only understood the immensity of the change in her when on July 10, her father-in-law Vincent, a businessman from Palakkad, lodged a police complaint at Palakkad Town South Police station that his two sons Bestin (now Yahya) and Bexan (now Eesa) and their respective wives Merin (now Mariyam) and Nimisha (now Fathima), who were pregnant, have gone missing since May 15 or 16, 2016. They had left home claiming that they are going to Sri Lanka for business. Central intelligence agencies are now probing the "mysterious disappearance" of these people and many other youths from Kerala.
Merin's transformation started in 2014.After graduating in BA (Communicative English) from St Teresa's College, Kochi, she went to Mumbai for a job in a BPO. "Influenced by then boyfriend Bestin (23), she started attending Islamic study classes in Mumbai. Bestin would preach extreme Islamic ideologies to Merin and claim that Islam is the only true religion. She believed everything he said and soon isolated herself from friends and family," says a relative.
Merin met Bestin when she was in Class XI (commerce stream). He had just joined Assisi Vidyaniketan School, Kakkanad and in a class of 25, they soon became best friends. Slowly love blossomed and everyone in the school was witness to this. While Merin was an introvert and studious, Bestin, an AngloIndian, had a casual attitude towards studies and loved sports.
"Merin's parents were always concerned about her well-being and progress as a student. Her mother used to come to school regularly and interact with us. However, the only time we had met Bestin's parents were at the time of admission. He came from a broken family (his parents were divorced and his father had remarried). When we asked him to get his parents after his poor performance in a school test, then he would get his elder brother," says a teacher.
Bestin's father believes that his son was radicalised by people he met in Bengaluru, where he had gone for higher studies in 2014."Here he got close to nine of his Muslim classmates from Kasaragod, who are also missing.We fear that they converted him to Islam. He used to visit Islamic preacher Zakir Naik in Mumbai frequently . They even took my son-in-law to Naik, who tried to convert him in vain," says Vincent.
"There is now a group of Salafi preachers who are popular amongst the educated youth in Kerala. They supply inexpensive Islamic material to them, conduct Quran learning classes for converts and appeal to different communities by tracing a common historical route," says M H Illyas, associate professor at India Arab Cultural Centre in Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia.
Merin soon quit her job in Mumbai and returned to Kochi within four months. "Not just her attire but her whole outlook to life changed. She became more withdrawn, started attending Islamic classes claiming that she wanted to know what made Bestin embrace Islam. She even stopped going to the church, was disturbed upon seeing religious idols and photos at home and started saying Namaz five times a day," reveals Merin's cousin Annu Mathew.
The change in Merin was too evident for all to miss but the family hoped against hope that they would get back their Ponnu (her pet name at home) and took her on a family trip to Thailand hoping the change would help. They also tried convincing her to go for higher studies and even got her admission for MBA course in Mangaluru. But all was in vain.
In 2015, Bestin, who had by this time converted to Islam and become Yahya, asked Merin to visit a home in Malappuram, where a woman who converted to Islam was staying with her husband. She converted to Islam and registered her marriage with Bestin in July 2015.
Even now their families are unable to understand why their children converted to Islam. Sociologists describe it as random adventurism that is not ideological and shows a lack of integration with family . "Youth is an age of aspiration, energy and new experimentation. If the traditional and family moorings are weak then they seek new insights and experiment with other faith by moving into unfamiliar habitats," observes noted Delhi-based sociologist Yogendra Singh.