Working on a ship a few thousand miles away from home in Kottayam, southern Kerala, Shince Shaiju could do nothing except tell his wife to go to a doctor, which, obviously, she knew she had to do. Shince and his wife Nobia had a baby in January 2014, and soon after, their daughter was running a fever.
"I couldn’t do much from there, except to tell her to visit a doctor," says Shince.
"It is difficult for both Nobia and me. If anything were to happen at home or to me, I wouldn’t be able to return home immediately and they wouldn’t be able to track me, but now we can at least talk through the situation," he adds.
They are in an impossible situation. Shince absolutely loves his work as an engineer on a commercial sailing vessel, which gives him the opportunity to travel. It has taken him to parts of Europe, Africa and the US until now, which also means different time zones.
"I often set an alarm to wake up and call home. I regularly ask Nobia if she can manage. I try not to make her feel alone. I know when she needs me and I try and guide her whenever I can," Shince says, adding that the company he works for allows him to make calls unlike others which permit employees to get in touch with their families only when at port.
Nobia and Shince with their daughter
But he still misses his wife, their baby and home cooked food, not to mention the birthdays, and anniversaries and weddings that they cannot plan ahead for.
There is no replacement for a hug on a blue day, an understanding look when you need it most or laughing together. Sharing silence too, is companionable when both are in the same room as opposed to when over the phone.
It has been like this ever since they got married over two years ago and are, effectively, in a long-distance marriage.
Long distance relationships, of all sorts, need more work, simply because while some distance can make the heart grow fonder, too much of it can work the other way round. Lack of physical intimacy and the sheer difficulty of keeping up with each other’s daily lives, could also cause couples to drift apart.
A couple in Karnataka, has actually turned the very experience of being in a relationship and yet living apart, into an opportunity to forge stronger bonds.
"We’ve had our moments. Like when I make surprise visits to my wife’s place or how she’d leave everything and come to me if I fell ill," says 31-year-old Murali Kaati.
For the last three-and-a-half-years, they made sure they met at least once a month.
"Ideologically and otherwise, our tastes are very similar, except for food, where we are poles apart," says Mamata. But things are easier for them because they know their present arrangement is a temporary one.
Mamata and Murali
Murali is the Programme Convener at a Bengaluru-based NGO, whereas his wife Mamata (30) is pursuing her PhD from Karnataka State Women’s University in Bijapur.
"Every day is difficult without her," says Murali.
Mamata will complete her thesis in the next few months and return to Bengaluru, where she intends to pursue post-doctoral research. But she doesn’t want to live apart from Murali anymore.
"We want to have a child now. I am in my 30s. My next priority is my family which is not just my husband, but also my in-laws," she says.
Twenty-nine-year-old Shince however, is looking at around 11 more years before he can live with his wife year-round. While at sea for eight months, Shince works on fulfilling a promise he made to his wife – to get back home before he turns 40.
"I want to quit after I reach the rank of Chief Engineer. That way, my job prospects will better. It might take five to 10 years, but I am working on it," he says.
Nobia too wants to get back to work in a few years’ time. But in the four months that he spends at home each year, Shince tries to make up for lost time.
Long drives have been reduced to shorter ones after the birth of their child, but like they say, there’s no place like home.
"Home" for Piush Antony (44) and Upendranadh C (49) is radically different. 17 years after they got married, they split up, in a manner of speaking.
They met in college, fell in love and went on to tie the knot. For several years, Piush would relocate every time her husband’s job required him to change cities. This meant shuttling between several cities in the country, and several times.
"After a point, we decided that this arrangement was not working out. And we did not want to give up our careers," Piush says.
For the last two-and-a-half years, Piush has been with UNICEF and lives in Lucknow with their daughter, while Upendranadh, an Action Aid employee, lives in Myanmar.
"It was a conscious decision we took. There is no bitterness or frustration between us. We work because we love our work, and we aren’t solely doing it for money. I can handle my bank accounts and he can cook and wash,” says Piush.
Things are smooth for them because they love their work. "There’s no space for loneliness in our lives. I like reading and writing and have a pretty active social life. He too has his own set of passions – like politics and international news – that keeps him going," she says.
Though there is an absence of physical proximity, Upendranadh feels that it has not resulted in an emotional distance. "We try to maintain a flexible arrangement in terms of work. This could be the reason it hasn’t affected us much," he says.
Besides this, there is another bond that keeps them together – their 15-year-old daughter. Every four months or so, Upendranadh comes to Lucknow to be with his wife and daughter.
Even though it is not enough, they "manage". WhatsApp and Skype have helped. They exchange photos to keep with each other’s lives, but Piush sometimes wishes that her husband was there to do the talking on some things with the teenager.
"At certain times, like when I scold her, I wish her father was here with her, so that she could crib about it to him," she says.
But neither she nor Upendranadh have any plans of living together any time soon; they might consider it once their daughter is an adult.
Traditional ideas of fidelity don’t bother them. "If I found him nice, it is very likely that someone else can too. There is a one percent chance that he may reciprocate, but for that I cannot ruin the other 99% of my relationship. I know that we don’t like other people like we do each other," says Piush.
For her, it’s more important that her husband exercises regularly and "whether he has got a paunch". Likewise, Upendranadh worries for her, because he knows she is absent-minded. "I know that he is always there for me. If I were to tell him to come home, I know he would," she says.
Post Script: Murali was Mamata’s senior in college. After a brief courtship, they got married, even though Mamata’s parents were upset that she wanted to marry someone from another caste. It took efforts, pain and tears to convince them, and luckily, her parents have not held on to their prejudice and accepted the marriage. The story of their lives appears to have inspired others. A student of Murali’s and his wife are re-enacting their story. "He said he had been inspired by us," Mamata says.