London-based writer Damien Gabet is trying to get his girlfriend Polly home. She's currently in lock-down India, happily shielded from the pandemic, in a yoga centre. Here he explains what it's like talking to someone who says, "Corona what?"

“We’re operating on a higher consciousness out here,” she said. “We’re not letting anxious thoughts guide us.” My girlfriend Polly was talking to me on a borrowed phone from an ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. I still don’t really know what an ashram is, though it’s been explained to me many times.

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Damien and girlfriend Polly on holiday in Corsica last August. Image: Damien Gabet

Her comment sparked an internal conflict. I was, of course, delighted to hear that my very own yogi was transcending (though I might have giggled when the comment was uttered). I was also pleased that she wasn’t panicking about being in a country on full lock-down during a global pandemic. But also, I was rather concerned.

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Polly is getting creative in how she communicates with her boyfriend back in London.  Image: Damien Gabet

Did she know what the situation was like outside of her idyllic hermitage? Was her travel insurance still valid? Did she know where she’d be treated if she got ill? Had she spoken to the British consulate? When was she intending on coming home?

The temptation to bark, “Covid-bloody-19 doesn’t give a f**k what level you’re currently floating on!” was strong. But I refrained because somewhere between my neglected chakras I knew her being in a bubble, protected from the mental maelstrom we’re still experiencing back home, was a good thing.

Cooler than gazpacho

As it stands, no one’s allowed in or out of her ashram and she has very limited access to the internet. So, instead of regularly reading news stories, whose headlines are written in adrenalin-spiking red, she’s continuing, almost as normal, with her disciplined days of yoga and meditation. The result: she’s cooler than gazpacho about the whole thing.

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Polly practising a bow pose ("dhanurasana" in sanskrit) ahead of a yoga session in the ashram in Tamil Nadu. Image: Damien Gabet

Polly and I met at a friend’s party one year, five months, 20 days, seven hours, 14 minutes and around six seconds ago. She ignored me for most of the evening until I summoned the gumption to ask her out for a drink. “You smell nice, so yes,” she said and then carried on dancing. We did what London lovers do and met twice a week, between hectic schedules, to drink over-priced cocktails in bars that made us look cool, to see whether the respective other “ticked the boxes”. 

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On Christmas Day she sent me a card so charming, heart-felt and god-damned romantic that it confirmed what I already knew: that I wanted her to be mine, mine, mine. The next day I called and asked if she’d come to Bangkok with me at the end of January (2019). It would be the last chance for us to spend time with one another before I went backpacking around Central America for five months. Why does that kind of bad timing always happen?

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Polly hanging out with her new friends in the beautiful gardens of her ashram in Tamil Nadu – clearly not too affected by the lockdown. Image: Damien Gabet

Weekly emails

"Our short trip to Thailand remains one of my fondest travel memories; darting about town on a Honda 125, seeking out the best street food and, well, having as much sex as humanly possible before we were separated. The following months were tough. It was her idea not to maintain patchy contact via Whatsapp, but to send one another a letter – via email – once a week, every week. And so every Sunday, come shine or shine, I dedicated myself to one task.

Looking back, I blush at how much I tried to impress her with my words: “his limpid grey-green eyes squinted as if scanning the celluloid roll of his memories for more snapshots,” I wrote of my pensive oarsman in Laguna de Chacahua, Mexico. Only people who think they’re writers use the word ‘limpid’. But it was these meditative missives that kept us going and I remain very grateful for her suggestion.

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In lieu of being able to buy and send an actual postcard Polly wrote this and sent Damien a photo. Image: Damien Gabet

In January, this year, it was my turn to wave-off my love from a London train station platform as Polly was bound for India. As it has done to so many of us, a decade of London fun had taken its toll, and it was time for her to engage in more holistic habits with the support of a subcontinental sage or two. The first month was in Goa, studying Ayurveda. After some time pottering around in Kerala, she caught the train to Tamil Nadu and her ashram.

 Saturday 4 April was the day I was meant to fly out to meet her. First for a tiger safari – the luxury! – and then onto more humble pursuits in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand. When it became obvious that I wouldn’t be able to join her, we decided that her ashram might just be the best place for her to “sit it out”.

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Polly practising yoga (this is a shoulder stand or in "salamba sarvangasana" in sanskrit) in the main exercise space of her ashram in Tamil Nadu. Image: Damien Gabet

This was before things escalated. Remember when we all thought it would blow over in a few weeks? How things have changed. There wasn’t a day towards the end of March where we didn’t wake up to a brand new reality. With the mercury rising back home I knew it was important for Polly to start considering her options.

Call the consulate

For her, though, up there in the cotton-wool of higher consciousness, very little was changing and so she remained breezy. While I was mindful not to imbue her with any of my anxiety – thus generating undue fear – I did want her to wake up to the reality of the situation and act prudently to stay safe. Last week “hello darling” was replaced with a careworn, “have you called the consulate yet?”

To begin with I was frustrated with her, but then I realised that her equanimity might be a good thing. Fear, if we’re to believe what she has learnt, is unproductive. With a few days to contemplate things a little more objectivity, I saw our asymmetry as fascinating: two people reacting to the same thing differently according to their converse circumstances.

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Polly sending Damien some positive encouragement from her ashram in Tamil Nadu. Image: Damien Gabet

I apologised for my tone and promised to try to be more sympathetic to her reality. She did the same. She’s also been using her new-found zen to help me to chill out a little (a work in progress). And so by going through this process, I feel we’ve become closer – despite being thousands of miles apart. The other revelation is Whatsapp voice notes: we both settle into lengthy recordings, sometimes half an hour long, discussing our thoughts and feelings in a slow, contemplative way that is oddly therapeutic.

Homeward bound

Polly’s since decided that instead of staying till June, as we’d originally planned, she’s going to come home as soon as possible. Her strung-out boyfriend is pleased. And so now we wait for India to lift its travel ban and for her to catch the next available flight home. In the meantime, I’ll be hitting refresh on the Foreign Office website every 15 seconds. That and googling ‘how to turn your pokey two-bed flat into an ashram’.

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