When I was a freshman at LUMS, in an effort to keep myself insulated from frivolities in my spare time, I took to sampling my first Sidney Sheldon novel. Soon, I was devouring all of them - a beautiful period in my life. Today, the mental filmstrip of those 18 novels is unfortunately quite blurred. There is, however, one image from that stream that never threatened to lose its distinction with me. In one of Sheldon’s more sagaesque novels, (possibly Memories of Midnight), the narrative describes (or so I remember!) a situation where a woman, married for a number of years now, is trying to drift into sleep just as she is beginning to lose strength in the denial that her extremely wealthy husband - once again mysteriously away from home for many nights at a stretch - is probably being intimate with another woman at that very moment. The impression cast on the reader is that the woman, tossing and turning in the bedroom of their estate, is now imprisoned in her marriage to a degree that is illustrated by the expanse and isolation of the couple’s gargantuan suburban home.

I credit this sequence almost singularly with making me realise that, when a woman gets married and leaves her family home, she leaves her entire life behind. And when the new life that she has faithfully committed herself so loses its integrity in the catastrophic manner that infidelity brings - the new home now rendered a farce - you can reasonably liken this to seeing a violent flood entirely wipe away the neighbourhood you have spent years of your life in.

Only, in the flood’s case, there’s no actual maliciousness, especially not by the person for the dedication of whom you spent those years and built that life.

“When we read a novel, we join ourselves to a character’s trajectory through the story world. We see things from their point of view—feel scared when they are threatened, wounded when they are hurt.. to sensitize us to the emotions of other people, transcending the limits of our own experiences and perspective.” (Psychologist Keith Oatley in his article, A Feeling for Fiction)

It’s quite similar to what Adam Smith wrote about in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: fiction allows to us become an “impartial spectator” to the struggles in the lives of others. In real-life, if most women are to hear of someone whose husband is cheating, their first reaction is often to rationalize this against the wife’s obvious incompetency with an almost furious briskness - that the supposed injustice must have been ‘asked for’ in some way (because, if God forbid it wasn’t at all asked for, then what’s preventing the same from happening to them?) Psychologists know this behavior as ‘blaming the victim.’

In fiction, however, we get to appraise situations in a new light – one that is free of the self-preservation biases that exist when these experiences happen to us in reality.

I’ve written on novel-reading before (in my Tribune article Because novel readers are more socially intelligent) but I wanted to apply the findings to an epidemic in our society.

Adultery in Pakistani society is more ubiquitous than most people can come to terms with. And it’s not merely in the statistics. It’s one thing to say that very likely over 95% of Pakistani men living in comfortable urban settings are unfaithful at some point in their married lives, and another to identify that the aforementioned statistic is operating in an environment where there are miles to cover before that trend can even begin to be reversed.

Let me illustrate the severity of the issue by sharing what was bequeath to me by a lady psychologist I once knew from my work. When I voiced what I feared was an overblown suspicion - back then it was just a suspicion - that I probably knew only one or two men who were not guilty of adultery, her reaction was similar to what would be expected if a twenty-year old man confessed he had always had an attraction to the opposite sex. Duh.

She provided me with an incisive representation of the average Pakistani upper middle-class husband of today:

“What do you think makes you motivated to sleep with other women this early on in your marriage?”

The answer is crisp and clear: “Aap roz aik burger khaa sakti hein?”

Clearly, the adage that “successful marriages are about giving, not receiving” is lost on Average Jibraan. And relationship gurus who fool you into thinking this can be changed overnight with motivational speeches are probably only betraying you with a twisted notion of redemption against their own failures. Enter realism.

“If one learns to fly, it may be a good idea to spend time in a flight simulator. A prediction of the hypothesis that fictions are typically simulations of the social world, therefore, is that people who spend time reading them will become more socially skilled..” (Keith Oatley, The Mind’s Flight Simulator)

The bride-to-be who reads novels shall be a bride who recognizes the challenges that face her. And she will know the answer is not in feminism - not in the pursuit of work, nor that of an inflated independence. The answer is in the voracious consumption of the written word, and the ability to discern what lies beneath the shining armour.

The feminists can prepare all they want for how they’ll be ‘fierce and independent’ in the face of injustice, but what they’re doing, on closer inspection, is just a glorified preparation for an impostor husband. They’ve already accepted defeat.

The literary girl, on the other hand, can afford to use her skills to delve into the heart of the matter and evade the impostors. Due to professional commitments and inspirations, men typically have much more elementary (or non-existent) fiction resumes, and in the pre-feminist era in Lahore you could note that a couple deemed ‘fit’ for each other almost invariably featured the wife being markedly more well-spoken, well-read and altogether more clever than the husband.

The bride-to-be who reads novels, exceedingly rare now, is the intellectual equivalent of an expert martial artist. She’ll know what you’re made of, and if you’re a fraudster - if you’re going to tell her one day, “I never promised you a rose garden” - she’s not going to fall for you and then later head out like a woman on a mission to make a life for herself ten years into a failed marriage; she’s going to do the literary girl’s equivalent of Judo Throwing you and choking you out if you step anywhere near her.

The irony is: that’s exactly the kind of girl I’m looking for.

Disclaimer: I would like my readers to know that in no way do I suggest that all novels are made equal. Not even nearly. To supplement the aforementioned theoretical underpinnings, you may consider: Dr. Oatley is an award-winning novelist himself! For more such treasures, email me, as I furiously work to navigate through the mass of fiction in the world today, and construct a small collection of the most poignant, enriching and simply delightful novels ever written.

   The author runs Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative.

    Facebook: facebook.com/scholarsbyprofession Twitter: @HarisSeyal