A Companion for Life
For The Aleph Review’s newly launched ‘Spotlight’ series, Shunali Khullar Shroff has penned a touching, vividly imagined story on falling out of love and infidelity, offering a raw snapshot of a marriage gone wrong.
It was the 11th of March, 2019. This would be my last email to him.
My marriage to Viraj had begun to unravel steadily after our second child, Alisha, was born. Arav, our son, was four at the time and we should have been a family content in its wholeness. Except that we weren’t, because my feelings for my husband of eleven years had eroded for no ostensible reason.
Falling out of love is as disagreeable a process as falling in love is magical. The loathing starts small but it builds up quickly, like a raging forest fire consuming everything in its wake.
It wasn’t that Viraj was a bad person, he was by all accounts a decent husband and a good father. But he was deeply insecure, a man at odds with himself. Still, I could not blame him. My decision to marry him had been a hasty one. So impressed was I with the window dressing that I forgot to check the wares within.
After spending years in a housing complex in Vile Parle, we had moved to Golden Arch, one of the swankier buildings that had risen over the traditionally middle-class neighbourhood of mills and dusty shops like a beacon of prosperity in Prabhadevi. It was here that Viraj’s affectations were on full display as we went about trying to unsuccessfully impress our wealthy neighbours. So far, I had made my peace with all that he was, but now it made me sick to be married to a parvenu.
To an aspirational person like Viraj, who wasn’t born into wealth, being around people with money was reassuring. Not surprisingly, we had stopped associating with friends from our old suburban life and with that, we drifted further apart.
I used to work in an advertising agency before we had our children, but motherhood had robbed me of all professional ambitions. Yet as the kids grew older, my time began to free up and I began desperately to try and find something else to fill up the growing void within myself. It was yoga that came to my rescue, and I spent the next two years pursuing a yoga instructor’s course.
Restless and with not much to do with my time now that both Arav and Alisha’s lives were governed by their own routines, I began to reconnect with old friends on Facebook. A friend from college mentioned to me that Anant, a senior I had been in a brief relationship with in college, was recently divorced from his wife of ten years. Even after all these years, hearing his name still managed to cause a flutter in my heart and I plucked up the courage to message him.
The shelf life of a love unrequited is longer than any other romantic love known to mankind, and part of me had remained in love with him long after he had stopped returning my calls in college. Doubtlessly it came gushing back soon as we started chatting online.
And this time I wasn’t the only one in love. An unhappy marriage had changed Anant for the better, it seemed. He reciprocated my feelings. Since his divorce, Anant had moved to his family-owned tea estate in Dehradun and ran his own boutique hotel there.
We never raked up the past, and I preferred it that way. Perhaps I was afraid to know the truth. Handsome, cultured and perfectly groomed, Anant was on every woman’s wish list in college. I had spent years wondering if he had found me too unsophisticated to hold his interest for long. It was best to start on a fresh slate as if we had always only just been friends.
This time, we got close very quickly. We were both hungry for a connection, and to be understood. Soon we began to share our disappointments about our chosen life partners. His wife had been ill-tempered, and prone to drama, he told me. He could not have spent his life with someone like that.
Anant had no children, and he felt sorry for my situation. He told me how grateful he was that we had reconnected, that he needed me in his life.
And so, we went about texting each other, night and day, obsessively. He wanted to fly down to see me. I would find a way, I said.
He came to Bombay to see me and booked a room at a mid-level hotel where he was sure not to run into somebody he knew.
I somehow managed to get away for three days in a row and returned home intoxicated with love and longing. Things began to move quickly thereafter. His trips to Bombay became more frequent. The two of us inhabited a parallel universe entirely of our own. Viraj was too busy working his way to the top and devoting his time to learning about cigars and good wines to realise just how disconnected we had become from each other.
I did not enjoy leading this double life, but what choice did I have? I wanted my children to grow up in the security of a stable home.
For his birthday that year, Anant invited me to Dehradun. I was desperate to go and see him there, in his house, and meet his friends whose names I had now become familiar with. I wanted to go to bed at night knowing I’d wake up next to him in the morning. I spent days agonizing over finding a convincing excuse to get away and finally told Viraj that I had registered for an advanced yoga retreat in Rishikesh. He agreed to take charge of the kids in my absence. My mother, who lived in Bandra, was always just a phone call away, and she offered to move in if the need arose.
At his beautiful and idyllic tea estate in Dehradun, Anant made me feel loved and at home. We made love endlessly and had breakfast in the garden overlooking the mountains. I knew then, for the first time, what it meant to be happy and fulfilled in love. At his birthday party, Anant introduced me to his friends as his girlfriend. I had yearned and yearned for this moment, it felt surreal now that I was living it.
We spent three magical days in each other’s company. On my last night there, in a moment of weakness, I told him that there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to live in that house with him. He kissed my forehead tenderly and told me he wanted it as well. That night I was too nervous and excited to sleep. As he snored softly next to me in bed, I kissed his arm, taking in the musky smell of his skin, imprinting it in my olfactory memory. I loved him. He was mine.
On our way to the airport, Anant cautioned me to tread carefully. He did not want to break up my home, he said, but if I ever did decide to leave Viraj, he would be more than happy to start life afresh with me.
In Bombay, I got an unexpectedly cold reception at home. Viraj had a tendency to be unpleasant, and I might have been able to overlook it if I wasn’t subconsciously searching for reasons to pick fights with him.
He accused me of being remiss in my duties as a parent. Arav’s piano teacher hadn’t been paid, and Alisha had outgrown her school uniform in case I hadn’t noticed, he said. My yoga lessons weren’t paying our bills, the least I could do was to raise our children properly. I was furious that Viraj had decided that a three-day stint as a hands-on father had earned him chiding rights over me.
The next day, shortly after he had left for work, I sent him a message asking for a divorce.
Viraj was visibly shaken up when he returned home that evening. He pleaded, he apologised for his outburst of the previous day, for being neglectful. He had assumed we were happy. He was making a life for both of us. But I was insistent. My parents counselled me and failed. Deep within, they knew that when it came to life’s decisions, I wasn’t one to brook interference from anybody.
Six months later we were living apart after having filed for divorce in the family court. Anant and I continued to see each other discreetly. I leaned on him for emotional and moral support, both of which he willingly provided.
Viraj, though bitter, had given me a fair and even generous settlement.
We had joint custody of our children and we amicably worked out a schedule for them to spend time with him every weekend. Anant and I had decided to keep our relationship below the radar for another year, for fear that Viraj would cut off the monthly instalments he was paying towards the new flat which was jointly in his name and mine.
A few uneventful months passed, and my divorce too came through. I started conducting yoga workshops across the city and making better money for myself. Anant and I spoke endlessly about our dreams for the future that we hoped to be able to spend together.
While everything else seemed to be falling into place for me, Arav’s delayed reaction to the divorce was causing me concern. An otherwise confident child, he became uncharacteristically diffident and insecure, not letting me out of his sight even for a minute. Finally, I had to engage a counsellor for myself so I could help my children navigate the collapse of my marriage.
Ever since my separation, Anant had been keen for us to go away somewhere for a few days, but I didn’t want to leave my children when they were at their most vulnerable. However, one day when he asked me if I would be willing to join him for a few days in Singapore the following month, I heard myself answering in the affirmative. He was to attend a conference there with his cousin Dev who was helping him raise money for his business.
My cousin Aditi worked as a chef at an upscale restaurant in Singapore and that made it easy to explain this trip to all concerned. She kept long hours at work and didn’t seem to mind when I told her that I would be shifting to another friend’s apartment after spending two days with her.
After arriving in Singapore, I spent two lovely days with Aditi, sampling different cuisines and shopping. Anant was busy at the conference, but we were both counting minutes until we could be together and spoke to each other whenever we got a chance. On my third day, I bid farewell to Aditi as she left for work in the morning as I was going to move into the Anant’s suite at the Fullerton Bay Hotel that evening.
I did not enjoy leading this double life, but what choice did I have? I wanted my children to grow up in the security of a stable home
I was getting my hair coiffed at a salon when Anant texted to inform me that something had come up and Dev had decided to push his ticket by a day. Since the two of them were sharing a suite, this meant that I would have to spend another night at Aditi’s.
We hadn’t seen each other for two months. I was impatient to be with him and I was both disappointed and upset that Anant was unperturbed by this change of plans. He did his best to placate me. It was only a matter of one night, he said. We were going to see each other for dinner that evening at the Six Senses Hotel anyway, and we would make up for lost time over the next two days.
In my excitement for our rendezvous that night, I reached the hotel earlier than planned. I was waiting to be seated when Anant messaged to tell me that he was running late by thirty minutes, their meeting had lasted longer than expected. I was in a funeral mood by the time he walked into the restaurant. Seeing that he had brought Dev along to our dinner, I felt I was going to pop a nerve. I wasn’t sure what Anant had told his cousin about us, but I was hoping he would leave us alone soon. Seeing that, Dev had no such plans, I began to seethe from within
And when the men started speaking critically of the #MeToo movement, which was at its peak phase in India, I thought I was going to stab them both. They argued that it had been blown out of proportion and that women were doing a disservice to themselves by recklessly accusing men of sexual misconduct.
“Women use sex to manipulate men and then accuse them if they ignore them.” I heard Dev say. I looked at Anant, and to my horror, he seemed to be in agreement.
Too many martinis, my dashed expectations and a fair dose of patriarchy came together to wreck what was left of the evening for the three of us that day.
I lashed out at the men on my table. Among other things, I told them that it was because of feudal men like them that women in our country were suffering and that I was ashamed to be in their company. The words came out sounding harsher than I had intended them to, but it was too late to retract them.
Seeing that the evening was over, Anant offered to drop me home in a taxi. We barely spoke on the way, but he did kiss my hand before I got out of the car. We decided to meet at the hotel the next morning, after Dev’s departure. He would ring me.
I barely slept that night and woke up feeling uneasy. I showered and got dressed in a lovely blue cotton dress that Anant had bought me.
When I still hadn’t heard from him by 10 am, I rang him to ask him if I should be on my way, but my call went unanswered. Assuming that he was still asleep, I decided that I would leave for his hotel along with my bags and wake him up myself.
I left my luggage at the bell desk of the Fullerton Bay and headed to the reception to ask for Anant’s room number. The young boy at the reception told me that the ‘guest had checked out’ a few hours ago.
I insisted he was mistaken and asked him to call the room, but he was certain, he had checked out Mr. Mahindra himself.
My heart sank even as my mind tried to make sense of what I had just heard. My hands trembled involuntarily, my mouth felt dry and my breath felt trapped in my chest. Walking towards the couch in the lobby I sat down with my head in my palms to regain my composure. I tried calling him a few more times but in vain.
I wondered if Anant hadn’t called me because he was shifting to another hotel. Had I been hasty in leaving Aditi’s home, instead of waiting to hear from him?
I had gone from excitement and expectation to hope followed quickly by disappointment and then crushing despair, all within a span of a few hours. My body was unable to absorb the shock. I spent the next three hours sitting on that couch lifelessly, hoping against hope that he would show up.
Back in Bombay, paralysed with grief, I lay in bed all day, unable to tend to my lovely children who deserved better. I replayed the events of our last evening over and over again in my mind. Had I sounded too harsh? What had I said that Anant had found so unforgivable?
‘This is cruel, Anant, please don’t do this to me. Please write back, I am sorry for my outburst the other day, I don’t know what got into me. Write to me just once, please,’ my emails implored him. He never wrote back. Had it all been a lie? Had he planned to leave me anyway? Those questions haunted me every waking moment. I would check my emails in the middle of the night. Surely, he would stop being upset with me one day. He loved me.
A year passed. The tears had dried up finally and a numbing calm filled my being of late. I didn’t have to deal with that stinging pain that had crippled my life all of last year. But the memory of that day was seared into my soul and it would follow me forever. It would continue to go to bed with me and rise with me. It would go to the park or the supermarket with me and sit on a plane and travel with me as a loyal companion for life.
Shunali Khullar Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer who has worked as a journalist and a corporate communications professional. She is the author of the bestselling novel Love in the Time of Affluenza (Bloomsbury 2019) and Hymn of a Bewildered Mother (Hay House 2015). Shunali writes for a host of publications, including the Conde Nast Traveller, The New Indian Express, Elle and HT Brunch on modern Indian life, travel and feminism. Shunali’s writings have received rave reviews in India and abroad. The author of Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan, gave Love in the Time of Affluenza his seal of approval saying, “I devoured this delicious treat within 48 hours, laughed nonstop and it made me want to book a flight to Mumbai right away. I want a sequel now.” In India, director-producer Karan Johar loved her book and was also part of its launch, where they discussed the nuances of Love in the Time of Affluenza.
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About the featured artist: Fakhra Asif was born in Lahore. She is a figurative artist, with a preference for oil painting. She started studying fine arts at Queens Mary College (2013) at the intermediate level. She graduated in fine arts from the College of Art and Design, Punjab University in 2017.