A Handbook for my Lover by Rosalyn D’Mello chronicles the unorthodox relationship between the writer and her lover who is a renowned photographer, 30 years her senior. What initially began as correspondence between the two lovers, with D’Mello attempting to detail her sexual past to her current lover, the project soon grew into a full-fledged book, drawing the reader into an intimate world.
I had numerous reasons for wanting to read this book. One, I knew the author. We had been in college together, a decade ago. I remembered her as having oodles of spunk and confidence. She had always wanted to get published. And I was curious to see what she had made of her life. Two, I was sufficiently piqued by the few excerpts that I had read on the various online publications. I was aware that she shad been working on a book, for a while now. That it was erotica was also common knowledge. That it was about a personal relationship sealed it for me. Three, as an aspiring writer myself, I’m keen on exploring the memoir as a writing genre. I hoped that while baring herself to the world, D’Mello would inspire me.
I was intrigued by the unconventional nature of the relationship. And I’ll admit that reading A Handbook for my Lover was to also satiate the voyeur in me.
A Handbook for my Lover is brave, courageous writing. D’Mello reveals so many of her insecurities and vulnerabilities. About getting attached, about being taken for granted, about being subjected to a gaze, etc. She explains how she consciously chooses the present over the compulsions dictated by her biological clock. And she shares her qualms on the uncertainty of their relationship. It’s almost like a treatise on modern, contemporary love.
So much has already been written about love. And more will be written. But A Handbook for my Lover breaks the mould that readers have to expect of a book on that subject. It relies heavily on the personal. And sometimes, more than what readers would have liked to know. But D’Mello wrote it only for one individual in mind. The lover was the intended recipient of this book. And it brought to mind, words of advice shared by a mentor early in my career, “Write for one specific person in mind. Keep that person in your head for every word that you put down on paper, and ask yourself, ‘Would X enjoy reading this?’” That has been my litmus test for my personal writing. I wonder it was D’Mello’s too. Or was it more a freewheeling draft initially?
The book follows a non-linear narrative, jumping back and forth into capsules of time. And while some chapters are simply narrated in fine prose, others are more directly addressed to the lover. And there’s little D’Mello leaves to the imagination: disagreements, lovers’ tiffs, the limited nature of their relationship, her sexual urges, et al. The voyeur in me was sufficiently satiated. So much, that I had to often keep the book aside, and breathe. Just breathe, for it was easy to get overwhelmed.
A Handbook for my Lover answered one concern that I had with writing memoirs. How much of yourself do you put there? How much of your life do you reveal? Do you reveal more than you hide? What are the repercussions of such oversharing on your personal ties, with the immediate family and so on. D’Mello finds her answers in 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.” Today, I draw strength from this quote.
I loved D’Mello’s conscious use of repetition as a writing device. In words, sentences and even entire paragraphs. Sometimes, even in differing contexts. And she often employs food as a metaphor to convey emotions and heighten the intensity of feelings. Alcohol sometimes sets the mood. And she makes all of these elements jump out of the pages of the book, with her extremely vivid and evocative descriptions.
The themes she tackles are universal to most relationships. And it just happens to be set in Delhi, which is where most of their relationship transpires. I loved the matter of factness with which D’Mello lays the facts on the table. How they met, their reasons for coming together and why they continue being together. Guilt is one emotion that she steers clear of, for she is too busy revelling in the moment to try and rationalise it in her head. And it is this feature that i think makes this labour of love unique. It’s not confined to a specific place in geography, or a defined time in history. It’s contemporary, and unabashedly narcissistic. Perhaps, an instance of art imitating life.
And this is why A Handbook for my Lover made me a little uncomfortable. There came a point when the voyeur in me was a bit creeped out. Did I really need to know so many intimate details about their relationship? Could I refrain from gossiping about it? Did D’Mello have to be so brutally frank? How dare someone use her relationship as material for her book?
Today, as a reader, I’d be curious to know how the relationship pans out in the future. But it’s D’Mello’s personal life. So where does one draw the line, now that she’s let me into her life?
It would also be interesting to read D’Mello’s next book, for I wonder if she feels the weight of all that she’s bared into the book. I wonder if she already feels slotted as a writer for the modern, urbane audience, or just an over enthusiastic diarist, who got too free with the pen. Or if she feels like she is the voice of an increasingly popular demography of single women in urban India?
With A Handbook for my Lover, D’Mello does make a powerful case for that voice!
The ten year old self saw two adults laughing hysterically over a joke. It mistook it to be love. Romantic. Passionate.
The young teen saw two classmates walking hand in hand, without a care in the world. Mistook that to be love too. Conceded that it could also be infatuation.
The twenty year old self saw two colleagues flirting in the parking lot. This had to be love, it rationalized.
Years later, after a few broken hearts strewn along the way, the self slowly embraced the truth. That love was not the furtive flirting, candle-lit dinners or presents wrapped in red. It was the quiet acceptance of the imperfect.
She was single. They surmised she was available. The married man, bored with his insipid life; an art director, unable to appreciate the distinction between life and art; the maverick entrepreneur, who thrived on challenging status quo.
It was a great high in the beginning. Much furtive texting accompanied with the promise of clandestine trysts and the glow afterward. She was charmed by it all. But not without being plagued with a recurring set of questions that she never got the answers to.
What is built on a flimsy premise rarely lasts a season. The conversations held a singular motive, that of physical and mostly sexual intimacy. There was nothing said of long, casual conversations leading to nothing, no spontaneous chats over compelling sunsets, no sitting on the stairs and staring into nothingness. It was always about getting entangled. And rarely with words.
She loved all the attention, not the intention.
She appreciated the honesty. She was also slightly shocked. The directness, the intentions were a revelation. To go ignored, unnoticed in a roomful of people was also a pricking revelation.
Each of these ties invaded her personal space. Emotionally, physically. Left her clouded with self-doubt. But she was stubborn. Held on that transitory high for the longest she could. Often stretching it to rationalize her actions.
Harassment wasn’t just limited to the words she read on the pages of the daily newspaper. It was being asked to loosen up and be a willing participant in an extra-marital affair, albeit he was shy of using that term. So much for audacity!
She wasn’t as outraged as she thought she ought to have been. There was just a lingering sadness and a sense of despair. At not being able to snap out of this rigmarole. She wanted the friendships. But not the sexual undertones that accompanied them.
Perhaps she’d need to sever them all. At least for a bit. Like you rip off a bandage in an instant, rather than prolong the agony.
One day, she promised herself!
“Love me for today; tomorrow, we’ll deal with tomorrow,” she texted him, switched off the radio and turned her back to the world to bury herself into her blanket.
It was the longest we had been out of touch but I wasn’t missing “us” as yet. “Us” had degenerated into what I’m not sure. I thought I was content with what we shared. Or maybe I wasn’t. I didn’t really know. And I didn’t have it in me to dissect it further.
He was my smile, my solace on a rotten day at work and more. But every evening I packed up those feelings, alongside the laptop, and trudged home. There wasn’t the space to let them out elsewhere.
I referred to him for the first time in a very long time, while talking to a friend last week. And it struck me that I only had good things to say about him, about us, about how you treated indulged me. But his lifestyle was an intentional but subtle reminder of what I’d never have with him.
I remember very fondly the long walks, the long hours on the phone and the lengthy emails. But none of them came remotely close to the feeling of loss I sensed each time we said bye at the end of a long day at work.
I suppose we were both just spent. Of lying. Trying. And forgiving.