How to Date a Married Man: Lessons in Infidelity from My Aunt

Love and Sex

How to Date a Married Man: Lessons in Infidelity from My Aunt

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The third wheel is as ubiquitous a part of modern dating as it is a part of every Mumbai autorickshaw. I never thought I’d become the “other” person in an ongoing relationship, which the woman whom I was briefly in love with, called “functional”. This meant the guy she was seeing would enjoy himself at long weekend brunches, while I was relegated to the occasional, “Do you wanna come over after work?” texts.

I would be off like a rocket, with my boner pointing to its true north, for a few hours of dispassionate, millennial, kaam-chalau coitus that came with caveats such as minimal kissing with no tongue, hand and mouth stuff with prior approval only, and no cuddling or intimate contact later. What started off with just the two of us keeping it “low key” had resulted in me feeling pretty low myself.

I moped, I bitched, I whined. I looked at it through the lens of the jilted lover, which took me down a path of introspection set to Atif Aslam songs; through the lens of angry male entitlement, set to Eminem’s “Superman”. How could she not see me for the catch I was? Her loss, except not really.

She was a single, independent, middle-class woman in the early ’90s who’d give Kavita Singh’s character in Udaan a run for her money when it came to being #YASSKWEEN.

On one of these YouTube binges, I came across the Bee Gees’ subdued “Islands In The Stream”. Now, no one should be listening to the Bee Gees in 2018, but something from that song stuck to the inside of my lovesick brain. By the time the chorus kicked in, I knew what it was. My aunt Astrid liked that song.

Aunty Astrid, God bless her soul, was the youngest of my mom’s seven siblings, which made her by default, my cool maasi. She was a single, independent, middle-class woman in the early ’90s who’d give Kavita Singh’s character in Udaan a run for her money when it came to being #YASSKWEEN. She was a stand-in mum to my cousins and me, five screaming brats in total, and was the go-to adult whenever the minor shit we did as a kid hit the fan.

She also had a decade-long stint as the “other woman”, stuck between two lovers and the truth.

Her paramour was a married man named Shamsher: A ’90s’ Adonis dressed in aviators, tracksuits, a gold Rado watch, and a 555 perpetually wedged between his lips. He’d cruise along in his jet black Fiat Padmini, belting out Nazia Hassan and Altaf Raja tunes. The same Padmini that took us on many drives to Juhu Beach.

Entrusting my eldest cousin with some cash, they’d leave us occupied with golas or some such so that they could sneak off for walks on the beach. Of course, we’d always interrupt these private moments, to become the haddis in their love kebab. To their credit, they’d display saintly levels of patience with us. On those days, aunty Astrid would walk around, a big smile on her face, humming some ’70s disco tune (usually Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”).

We couldn’t tell why, but the other adults seemed to resent Uncle Shamsher and Aunt Astrid spending time together, to which her response usually was, “Fuck off, madarchod!” Who Astrid slept with was her own business; after all she made enough middle-class “fuck you” money from her job as a supervisor in a pharmaceutical company.

We didn’t fully understand this kerfuffle, until we started getting older, and shows like Just Mohabbat put ideas in our heads. And I saw my aunt weep for the first time after a final shouting match with Uncle Shamsher. “It’s not all his fault. I knew what I was getting into,” she said.

Shamsher, like all good Indian men, loved his wife, but both aunty and he enjoyed  spending time together. Eventually, however, he chose his wife. Aunty Astrid was always aware that it would come to this. “This was like putting your legs in two different boats, you get your balls smashed when both the boats get close to one another,” she said. With that flippant line, she walked away, got dressed, and took me to lunch at our favourite restaurant.

In the ’90’s, when the most liberal thing in the country was its economic policy, my aunt did what most women only read about in those erotic fiction meets women empowerment meets mystery masala novels they’d read on the sly, wrapped in brown paper. My huge extended family believed Astrid’s unmarried status equalled celibacy, and that she had no business cavorting with a married man. In their pre-liberalisation midsets, the blame rested squarely with her: She was the “homewrecker”, the “seductress”. But my aunt – too busy holding down a full-time, high-paying job, providing for an alcoholic brother and an ailing mother – had no time to really give a damn. She didn’t need a husband to define herself; she didn’t need him to “put a ring on it”.

It’s funny how we think our generation is the first to encounter the minefield we’ve come to call “modern dating”. Aunt Astrid didn’t have Facebook or Instagram or Rupi Kaur to tell her how to feel – she sort of figured it out herself and didn’t make a big deal about it.

Aunty passed away a summer afternoon in 2008 from a sudden heart attack. To this day I still make my biryani in the same beaten-up aluminium handi she used while teaching me.

That handi isn’t Astrid’s only legacy in my life. In her 43 years, she showed me how you don’t need to carry any bitterness in your heart. When Shamsher walked out of her life for good, she didn’t let the pain get her down.

If she were around today, I know she would’ve had my back. I’d known what I was in for once I agreed to be the “other one” and keep it “low key”. Now that the other two had made their choice, whining would only indicate immaturity on my part. Moving on was inevitable, but I would normally have seen this as an opportunity to run away from what I viewed as a bad experience, rather than running toward something better.

Thanks to Astrid, I now know that love doesn’t need to be a burden you expect just one person to carry. Instead, you spread it around, lightening the load. Were she alive, she’d probably have said with a chuckle, “Bugger I told you not to stand in two boats men, your balls will get smashed. Chal, let’s go eat some biryani now?”