Manasi Nikam and her partner of three years, Aaron Eapen, have gone through misery and suffering since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nikam, who completed her master’s from Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands in December, wanted to return to India after six months in Europe. Instead, she has been stuck in the Netherlands. There were windows of opportunity for her to come back, but, she said, she didn’t want to put her elderly parents through the risk of contracting coronavirus. As it happened, her father caught the fearsome disease in August anyway.
Eapen too is having a distressing time. In August, there was a landslide close to the tea estate his father runs in Kerala and many workers were crushed to death. While dealing with these and other troubles, Eapen has to stay up late to make sure that he gets to talk to Nikam, who lives three and a half hours behind him.
“It becomes stressful for me,” said Nikam. “I tend to act out because I have been living by myself…It’s a bit [because] of alienation.”
Her work has kept her occupied, she said, “but at the end of it, what decision do I make? Both economies – India’s and Netherlands’ – are going to be in a shambles. So, do I go home or not? Even if I go home, won’t it be risky?”
“What I would like most is to be able to come back home and spend time with my family and boyfriend,” she said. “But because of the pandemic, and [given] how things are escalating in India, I won’t be able to at least till the end of December…That makes everything gloomy.”
A few months ago, she said, she was still adjusting. “But now I’m stuck. I don’t have agency anymore...Everything is determined by external factors.”
Long-distance relationships are hard even at the best of times. They demand tenacious effort. Miscommunications happen often. And it is common for one of the partners, if not both, to succumb to jealousy or anxiety.
In the face of these difficulties, if there is one thing that sustains long-distance relationships, it is the prospect of meeting the companion in person. Partners often build their lives throughout the year in such a way that they can steal a few weeks with each other, hopefully more than once.
Those trysts have come to a halt in times of the coronavirus pandemic. There are severe restrictions on international air travel and even when it is allowed, there are questions on whether it is safe enough.
This is why, in July, the European Union urged its member nations to ease travel restrictions to allow unmarried couples to reunite. The request was heeded by France, the Netherlands and a few others.
Pratima Singh* and her partner, Anshu Agarwal*, have been dating for four years. In 2019, Anshu left Bengaluru to do a master’s programme in data science at the University of Texas in Dallas, but they nevertheless made an effort to meet twice. Singh visited him in May, while Anshu travelled to Bengaluru during his winter break.
This year, Singh and Agarwal were supposed to meet and make things official by talking to their parents about marriage. “We’ve been taking time to plan,” said Singh. “But now, it will largely depend on the [coronavirus] situation, which none of us can predict.”
Despite the uncertainty, they are focusing on how much closer they have become. “We’re trying to find ways to be in each other’s lives,” said Singh. “We do a Netflix party where we watch shows together; [we do] wine and dine dates; and I meet his folks in Bangalore often, which keeps me connected to him in a way. We’re trying our best.”
Also separated by the Covid-19 pandemic are Mihir Sharma, a legal consultant, and Heidi Li*, a Taiwanese professor at OP Jindal University in Haryana. Sharma met Heidi while waiting for a taxi outside a metro station in Delhi. “I saw her waiting for a cab, and I immediately asked her if she wanted to share one with me,” Sharma said. “We lived pretty close to each other, so we started talking and one thing just led to another.”
Sharma and Heidi have been living together for two years. They had planned to move abroad together next year to do a master’s programme, but she was evacuated from India in May.
“Considering that Taiwan doesn’t have official diplomatic relations [with India] or even a proper embassy [here]...if something had gone wrong, they wouldn’t have been able to help their citizens much,” said Sharma. “[So] they evacuated most citizens.”
The two are waiting for international flights to resume, so they can reunite. “Given that we’re seeing record coronavirus cases in India, I don’t see it happening anytime soon,” said Sharma.
He admits that the last few months have not “been easy. It gets frustrating because sometimes you will not be able to give each other the time you need.” In those moments, Sharma said, “there’s only one thing you can do, which is to understand the emotion your partner is going through.”
They have nearly broken up twice since the separation, but what got them over the bump was the certainty that they want to stick with the relationship. “It helps to reinforce that this is just a phase, and we’re going to get through it together,” said Sharma.
* Some names have been changed on request.