“Patriarchy is not just men versus women, but also women versus women”

Shunali Khullar Shroff wears many hats – she’s been a journalist, she blogs and contributes to publications of significance like Condé Nast Traveller, Daily O as well as Brunch. But of late, she’s coming into her own as an author who is two books young.

And she knows too well that in this world, perceptions do matter, and especially so, if you are a woman. As a mother of two daughters, Shunali is now more aware than ever about gender inequality, and more concerned than she ever was about its effect on young women today.

To voice her concerns regarding these inequalities (but not in a ‘lectury’ way!), she decided to come up with Love in the Time of Affluenza, her new book, which touches upon how unfairly we often judge fellow women especially when it comes to infidelity.

“My book explores love, marriage and adultery, but not in a judgmental way. I’m not advocating infidelity. But whenever we learn that a woman is having an extramarital affair, we tend to forget all the other positive aspects of her personality,” she says, as we sit for a quick chat at her sprawling Khar residence.

“The book was an attempt to peel off the layers and look at what lies at the core,” she says.

“This is my first attempt at fiction, but I can’t say it was a story that had been brewing inside me for a long time, although that might sound more ‘authorish’,”smiles Shunali. She’s concerned that in her black top, blue jeans and high heels, she looks more like a socialite. “I was in half a mind to wear salwar kameez today, but my mom dissuaded me,” she giggles.

Also, she is acutely aware that chances are her book would get dismissed as yet another ‘chick lit’, a term she hates.“If you are a woman and an author, your work is almost automatically tagged as ‘chick lit’. It is interesting how there is no ‘man-lit’. By this prevalent notion, even Jane Austen is chick lit, although written in the language of the time!” she points out.

Women and chicks

“There is serious gender bias in the writers’ community,” she says. “After the release of my first book, Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother, I attended some lit fests and was quite shocked by the way women authors are treated there. It is still mostly a men’s club. Irrespective of the quality of your writing, if you are a man, you get an automatic entry. But a woman author needs to have written something really serious, and also dress in a certain way, to be granted a hearing. If you have written about rescuing girls from slums, you might get some attention, because that’s reportage. But if you have written just a good story, and you are not someone like Jhumpa Lahiri, nobody will talk about your work, or even to you! Men walk around with respect as an appendage, but women need to earn it, in every field, in whatever they do,” she quips.

Girls diss girls

Growing up as an army kid, the only gender bias she remembers facing was when her grandmother would favour her cousin brother… “just for the virtue of being a boy!”. “But in the Army, the women get so much respect that I was not really ready for the kind of discrimination one has to face on a day-to-day basis in the ‘civilian’ world,” she says. And having a career in the media has been an eye-opener of sorts too.

“If you are outspoken, presentable, you have a mind of your own, you need to reduce yourself to fit into the man’s world so as to not to threaten him,” she points out. But, more than the men, it bothers her how women often become the tormentors of women, a concern that often reflect in her works as a freelance writer.

“But even women are no better when it comes to stereotyping women. You dress well to work, and you are immediately dismissed by your colleagues as shallow, especially by women! You might have the brain of Stephen Hawking, but it is likely that most women on the floor will tag you as a bimbo. I have faced this while working as a journalist. How will we win this battle if women are their own adversaries? I often hear women proudly announcing that they get along better with men than with women because they prefer intelligent conversations. If you are dissing your own kind, how do we even blame men? Patriarchy is not just men versus women, but also women versus women,” she points out.

Although she has set her stories in her own world, that doesn’t reflect her own life or that of the people close to her. “I have not lifted five people from the society and written about them! As a writer one does use their creative imagination to write fictional characters!” she quips. “Natasha is a character I always wanted to create and as for Trisha, she’s loosely based on women one has met or known of and then one does add other facets to the prototype,” she elaborates.

The story deals with the upper crust of the society and according to her, that was a conscious decision. “I am not being aspirational about the rich and the affluent. I can be truly honest to my story if I am talking about things I really know. This is the society I belong to and I know all its layers. I think it would be a sort of appropriation if I started writing about people living in the slums. I have never lived that life. Shantaram rings so true because Gregory David Roberts had lived that life. Crazy Rich Asians worked because it showed the realities of that society.”

She adds: “Of course, there are authors who are amazing with their research and can do justice to all kinds of stories, but I am not them! I like to be true to myself first. And why can’t there be stories about rich people? Every strata of the society has its own set of struggles and complexities. My book is essentially about emotions, which are universal.”

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From HT Brunch, July 28, 2019

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First Published:
Jul 27, 2019 22:00 IST

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