Love In The Time Of Affluenza is a story about an ostensibly happily married woman belonging to the upper crust of Mumbai society, who discovers to her horror that her best friend is having an affair. She expects the very worst, and in a way wants the very worst for her, but when it happens, the outcome is far from what she expected.

It is a common human foible to judge other people, especially people we perceive as different. We make up our minds about people based entirely on how they look and by the choices they make. I am no exception.

Over a baked John Dory and angel hair pasta at lunch one day with a friend from Delhi, I learnt unexpected things about an acquaintance from our extended social circle. The woman under discussion had created quite a stir when, one fine day, she left not only her perfectly decent husband but also abandoned their children. A month later, she reappeared on the arm of another man. You would see her turn on the charm with other men at parties over the years, and it was apparent that she thrived on being desired. But nobody expected her to actually take a lover, that too sans the baggage of children.

Love In The Time Of Affluenza: By Shunali Khullar Shroff, Bloomsbury India, 296 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>299.
Love In The Time Of Affluenza: By Shunali Khullar Shroff, Bloomsbury India, 296 pages, 299.

My children were nearly the same age as hers, and I felt I had so wholly committed myself to motherhood that I couldn’t wrap my head around anybody putting their romantic needs above their children’s. I am afraid I thought she was a monster.

“It was love," she had told her closest friends, and “nothing mattered to her except love".

I could write a long list of things that mattered just as much, like good skin, school admissions and firming up the mummy tummy, and also throw in the bit about one’s duty towards one’s progeny, but I wasn’t part of her inner circle and my opinion had not been sought. Just as well.

Moral outrage is the domain of the young and immature. I suppose I was both, and I can only hope I have improved at least a little bit (God forbid anybody should write to the editor to contest my claim).

Given the norms of our society, which is not exactly known for being forgiving to women or for applying the same rules to the goose as to the gander, I was surprised to see that this woman didn’t end up a social outcast. She retained close relationships not only with her own friends but also with the wives of her husband’s friends, who believed the man had done little to deserve the cuckoldry.

The party invitations didn’t dry up, her children were offered support by doting aunties, and in due course her lover was accepted too.

When her name came up over lunch the other day, I expressed my curiosity to our common friend. “How does she still have the support of so many friends?" I asked her. “Because she is a good friend," came the answer. It was not an opinion shared by someone else who had once called her a friend, the ex-fiancée of her new lover, but never mind her for the moment.

“We make allowances because somebody has got to be collateral damage, but she has many redeeming qualities. She never gossips or goes in for back-biting, she’s always helpful and there for you when you need her, she is kind and there is no hypocrisy in her," her friend said.

If one didn’t know better, one would think my friend was describing a saint. I was stupefied. I suppose it had never occurred to me that she could be both things, someone willing to cause great suffering in the pursuit of romantic fulfilment but also essentially kind. Perhaps, as a woman, kindness and goodness in my mind had always been linked to a bit of martyrdom, a sense of sacrificing oneself for the greater good.

That’s when the character of Trisha, the adulteress, was born. I wanted to create someone grey, someone who was flawed and seemed, at least initially, utterly selfish and oblivious to the people who depended on her.

It’s fiction, so I just used the woman in question as inspiration and then I used some imagination to create the rest of the character. I have come to realize that we typecast women all too easily. And that as women, we are complicit in putting labels on other women. Life is slowly teaching me that there really never is a type and that the realities of our lives are more nuanced than they appear from the outside. The “wanton" woman can also have a gentle and caring side, and the woman who is the epitome of moral goodness can be cold and vengeful.

Different things drive us as women. For some, it is their career, for others it is the security of a stable and steady family life, and for yet others it’s the pursuit of that thing called love.

I wanted to create women who were going through different stages of their lives and different inner journeys and I wanted to play out the consequences of the choices they were making. This is how Natasha, my protagonist, came into being. She is the safe woman, the woman society treasures not just because she’s sweet but also because her choices appear unthreatening. But Natasha begins to question her own choices after she finds out about Trisha’s affair.

Could it be true then that we judge others because it reminds us of all that we cannot be, and because their actions threaten our own carefully held together inner world?

There is also Natasha’s friend Nafisa, with an exciting career and ostensible freedom, who moves from relationship to relationship, never investing enough of herself to be bruised by a disappointing encounter. Between the three of them, we have the conventional and the reckless. And yet, if you look close enough, they could all easily be aspects of just one person, because aren’t the feelings of desire, discontent, longing, schadenfreude, along with the quest for long-lasting happiness, ultimately common to all human beings?

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