A Handbook For My Lover

[On reading Rosalyn D’Mello’s sensual memoir/ ode to her lover/ archive of everyday events/ erotic prose/ instruction manual for love]

This is a gorgeous book. Hardcover. Grey on the outside and crimson mixed with purple on the inside. The shade of a woman’s lips, a woman who is alluring in her confidence, in the knowledge that she is attractive. This is a book that makes you wish you had a camera, so you could prop it up against a black background and let the sunlight stream in, and watch the fight which unfolds between light and shadow, while you captured its beauty for posterity.

When I was 15, I wrote a story that I presumed came from an outpouring of creativity. It was about an orphaned baby girl brought up by loving parents. All is well until they tell her the story of her adoption. I realized the next day I’d written out the screenplay of Kannathil Muthamittal in my diary. I knew then, as I know now, that writing fiction wasn’t for me. Rosalyn D’Mello writes, “Though I don’t write fiction, try as I may – I find it tiresome to invent characters and plot lines – it is through my imagination that I transform everything I experience into the written word.” She made me believe in myself a little bit more, that while I may not have it in me to create characters, endow them with quirks, and place them in a fully constructed world, maybe I will one day find in me an ability to express the ordinary in extraordinary ways.

A Handbook For My Lover is a woman’s story, a woman who is vulnerable for choosing to reveal herself, a woman who is powerful for doing so. In her prologue, the author declares, “The striptease isn’t complete until I strip you too.” She proceeds to bare herself to us, on physical, emotional and intellectual planes. She also invites us to peek into her lover PB, who by being the subject and object of this book, is laid bare too. How brave does an author have to be to be able to expose herself in such an intimate way? She quotes Kamala Das, “Do I want to be a well-loved member of the family? Or do I want to be a good writer? You can’t be both at the same time.” In her handbook, Rosalyn D’Mello examines her relationship with her much older lover, a love that is without a future, a love that exists in the present, a love that society would deride at every opportunity, a love that consumes her and provides her with a muse. She traverses the landscape of her heart and brings to us moments of exquisite joy and pain, she ends up walking all over ours too.

I have often wondered about Love. I know they said love makes the world go around, I know poets and philosophers have struggled for long with this question. Is it the fireworks that dazzle you or is it the detonation that occurs long after you have forgotten about the spark? Is it putting someone else’s needs above yours? Is it demanding they do the same, or not caring if they did the same? Is it a freedom that allows you to be at your best or worst, and knowing it wouldn’t matter? Maybe it is the feeling of having come home, she says. My favourite part of the book is one titled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, where she tries to explain this thing called love. When her lover says it is easier to show love than to talk about it, when she makes her case that repeating utterances of love render them meaningless, I want to agree with her. When she quotes Derrida [“Okay, supposing I loved someone, do I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are? … Or do I love your qualities, your beauty, your intelligence?”] I paused to think. What indeed is love?

Labelling this book ‘erotica’ does not do it justice. Yes, it describes lust and its consequences, but I found ‘Feast’ to be more erotic than descriptions of sexual intercourse. She starts with a Goan recipe, and ends with offering herself as a feast for her lover. She writes about touch, and about sleeping in the same bed, about caring for a man whose needs are so different from her own, whose temperament is alien territory for her. She writes with passion about Passion. She makes me squirm, she makes me want to feel desired, she tells me there is no shame in love.

Oh, to be able to write like Rosalyn D’Mello.


An edited version of this review was published in The Madras Mag.

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