There are some gifted writers of humorous novels who manage to maintain a fresh and vivacious tone beyond their debut works. Shunali Khullar Shroff is among those fortunate ones. Her novel Love in the Time of Affluenza is set in present-day Mumbai, and is an engaging, albeit superficial, satire on the shallow values — yet real heartaches — of the city’s elite class.
The novel is rather quaintly recounted in first person and its protagonist, Natasha Singh, appears to be lucky enough to have it all. The well-maintained mother of three beautiful children, the heroine also happens to be married to an actual prince, Varun Singh of Jhalakpur. Responsible, attractive, kind and astonishingly faithful, Varun is just too good to be true, but in spite of the reader’s initial, justified scepticism, he consistently remains that way throughout the book. However, a physically beautiful, but spoilt and selfish mother-in-law does her best to nullify some of Natasha’s happiness, and one must give the antagonistic pair credit for providing one with laughs as one peruses the book.
But the privileged though good-hearted Natasha has a few problems other than a challenging mother-in-law. At the very commencement of the novel she discovers that her close friend Trisha is having an affair with a gentleman named Guneet who appears to genuinely care for his paramour. Matters are complicated by the fact that Trisha’s husband Nakul is a close friend of Varun’s and his business partner to boot. Natasha’s attempts to remonstrate with Trisha fall on deaf ears and, much to her horror, our heroine gradually realises that Trisha expects Natasha to keep her mouth shut about matters because of the intertwined ties of friendship and loyalty. This leaves Natasha in a very awkward position, to say the least.
Despite the author’s considerable linguistic ability and acerbic wit, a very odd type of nervousness pervades this South Asian chick-lit beach read
Before one gets the impression that Natasha’s head is as void of sound matter as Trisha’s sense of virtue, it would be fair to add that our heroine was a gifted writer and professional before giving up her career in order to be a full-time mother and devoted — though occasionally petulant — wife. Looking desperately for a constructive outlet herself that does not involve an illicit liaison, she resumes professional writing by freelancing for a glamorous magazine. This move plonks a gorgeous hunk of an actor before her who is as attracted to Natasha as she is to him. Readers will need to dip into the book to find out how the plot unravels; all I can say on this front is that Shroff handles the situation deftly enough.
The reason that Shroff’s novel promises to succeed as a South Asian, chick-lit beach read is because, like Helen Fielding and Sophie Kinsella, Shroff creates a truly likeable heroine, liberally peppering the book with Natasha’s many trivial faults while lightly underscoring that her humanity makes it easy for some people to relate to her. Grim critics might crib that they have no patience with a woman whose problems are relatively petty in the grand scheme of things, but they will be missing the point — which is that Natasha’s problems come across as all too real from her perspective. In a world where a single social misstep can make or break a reputation, the heroine lives at the edge of a cultural and socio-economic precipice. And while a sympathetic reader may not wish her to plunge into an abyss, the same does not hold true for shameless hussies wishing to entrap Varun, jealous rival housewives and even friends suffering from bouts of schadenfreude. In spite of Varun’s gift of an ostentatious emerald pendant, Natasha is often reminded that all that glitters is not gold.
Shroff’s greatest asset is her acerbic wit and, for some, the book is worth reading on that basis alone. Perhaps the biggest problem with Love in the Time of Affluenza is that, in spite of being crammed with enjoyable witticisms, very little actually happens over the course of the novel. This might explain why Natasha suffers from a subtle sense of ennui from start to finish. Jane Austen’s satires have been aptly, though somewhat cruelly, encapsulated in the statement ‘boy meets girl. Girl gets boy’. With Shroff’s novel, however, one is not even given the minor satisfaction of encountering a romance that leads to marriage.
Like Georgette Heyer’s delightful but slightly ridiculous April Lady, Shroff’s book is about a happily married couple that, in spite of a few hiccups, remains a happily married couple. After a while the novel’s fairly futile twists and turns may begin to grate on the nerves of some readers. While Shroff writes well and certainly appreciates the ins and outs of satire, the basic ins and outs of what a successful plot entails appear to have eluded her completely.
Perhaps some of the blame for this can be laid at the door of the characters themselves. Natasha’s children are sweet though spoilt, her friends pleasant though selfish, her husband virtuous though preoccupied, and even her mother-in-law falls short of being deliciously wicked. What saves books from the type of superficiality that threatens to push novels towards the brink of tedium are intriguing, multi-faceted characters and, sadly, this novel doesn’t contain a single truly interesting individual. A very odd type of nervousness pervades the book: seducers draw back from ruining anyone, potentially bitchy women refrain from cruelty when one least expects them to, and virtually everyone packs away problems (both major and trivial) into boxes that are tied up with pretty designer bows.
Like Natasha’s 40-something figure that is at the mercy of diets and corsets, Shroff’s novel appears to be actively refraining from becoming something bigger. The heroine’s main tragedy (for want of a better word) is that she will never amount to anything. Novels like this one are generally not expected to be trendsetting or memorable, but one wishes that Shroff had used her considerable linguistic ability towards working on something that would leave more of an impression on us. Although it’s fun, the pleasure this novel provides is fleeting at best and utterly forgettable at worst.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Love in the Time of Affluenza
By Shunali Khullar Shroff
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 6th, 2019