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A long-distance marriage in the time of lockdown

What does the world look like when you are stranded in a different continent from your spouse during a pandemic?

Sukhada Tatke and her husband, Didier.
Sukhada Tatke and her husband, Didier.

Our chilli plant is now growing new leaves," my husband messaged me without using exclamation marks, as he normally does when he relays such information. I zoomed in to the picture and saw the sprouting leaves, patterns on the blue pot, and the long shadows cast by the windows on our floor. I knew exactly what time of day it was by looking at the spot flooded with sunlight in that familiar corner of our living room. It was winter when I left Grenoble, France. Now, spring had announced itself.

I arrived in Mumbai in early March. When Didier and I said bye to each other, we promised not to watch the films that were on our Netflix list by ourselves. It was a matter of three weeks anyway. We could resume our weekend ritual of film-viewing when I was back from my holiday.

A month has since passed. In the meantime, the world has spun around its axis in such frenzy that it has taken with it the notion of time, emptied it of its essence and dumped it back on us as an amorphous, monstrous entity.

Borders have closed in on us in ways we could never have imagined; each of us is now barred from entering the other’s country. Distance is not something we generally fear, Didier and I. We moved in together several months into our marriage. I am a journalist, he a scientist, and we travel for work a fair bit. I also make frequent trips to India, like the one that brought me here this time. But distance tinged with uncertainty during a pandemic is not something we had prepared for.

Countries have always been protective of their frontiers. In that sense, our situation is not ours alone. We have privilege on our side, however. We know we are not fleeing wars and violence; we know we won’t be pulled apart and split up at borders.

It feels almost self-indulgent, then, to pay attention to these small, discomfiting feelings of momentary separation in the lifetime of togetherness we have promised each other. Even more so because one wonders: Do personal emotions have any place in a world chock-full of tragedies of colossal proportions? But when multitudes begin to cram tiny moments, when moments seem unusually compressed and stretched, how does one begin to grasp what lies ahead, what one has left behind? In the absence of known guarantees and coordinates, the mind wanders inward.

In Mumbai, I look out of the window and see trees and hear birds. But when I think of the spread of the virus in this beloved city of mine, I only imagine bowling pins dropping one after the other in quick succession. At least Mumbai is in front of my eyes; in it, my mother. Grenoble is not. Sometimes, what you can’t see seems more perilous than it is. And what I see from here is France in a state of health emergency with a mounting number of covid-19 cases and Didier, barricaded all alone at home.

It helps, though, that he is an eternal optimist and recounts his days in lockdown with a kind of insouciance only the French are capable of. One day, he told me excitedly that there was an opera singer in our neighbourhood. “I heard her but couldn’t see her from our balcony." Another time, I overheard people singing in their balconies while on the phone with him.

He assures me he steps out only for groceries and not more than once a week. I imagine him leaving our apartment with a handwritten declaration bearing his name and address, attesting that he’s on the street to carry out one of the few activities permissible under a new decree to fight the spread of the coronavirus. I see him walk 100m to our neighbourhood store where he stands in line, 6ft away from other shoppers. At the entrance, a guard fills a notebook standing at a high table, making a tally of people entering and exiting. Didier can go in only when someone else comes out. Inside, the store seems to have more staffers than buyers. At checkout, the cashier, wearing gloves and a mask, uses sanitizer after every transaction. A huge plastic sheet from the counter to the ceiling separates her from customers.

There are police vans at various checkpoints on big boulevards. Didier can go for a walk if he wants, but his movements are restricted to a 1km radius from our home. He is allowed to step out only once a day, for an hour at most.

Confinement is the word the French use for lockdown. Borrowed from the Latin confīnium, which means common boundary, limit or border, the word has a dreadful, suffocating ring to it. We wonder how long it might be before we are confined together in what was once an unbounded world.

I am aware as I write this that had I been with my husband in this time of calamity, my heart would have longed for my mother in Mumbai. There’s always someone missed during a crisis, always a momentous loss substantially exacerbated. Much of the pain of adulthood comes from being torn between the various locations you have lived in and people you love.

The last film we saw before I left was Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. It was not long ago but it’s difficult to now recollect that world we inhabited together. Never has the disjuncture between physical time and emotional time been so pronounced. All the temporal measurements that help us make sense of our impermanence have now subsumed into a vast expanse of void where nothing changes and yet everything changes. The Mumbai I am currently dwelling in is the not the same I entered. The Grenoble I will go back to will not be the one I left. But there’s still snow on the Alps, Didier told me during a recent conversation, and it’s just as gorgeous.

Last week, he sent me a list of Netflix films with the following words: “Which are the movies you want to watch? I could wait until you come back, or we could watch them on the same day, and then talk about them the next day, while you’re there."

His email, so normal in the face of the monumental devastation unfolding before us, moved me. It seemed to say that this distance imposed upon us was temporary, that I didn’t need to punish myself for being consumed by my ever fluctuating emotions. But what about the terror of a microorganism’s might, coupled with the power of nations obsessed with ideas of nationhood? And how to do business as usual when hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers in India waiting to go home risk hunger, contagion and death?

I didn’t tell him anything about my turmoil. “Let me check the trailers and get back to you," I said instead.

Sukhada Tatke is a reporter and writer based in Grenoble.

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