The modern Indian woman’s journey into self-awareness through sex, heartache, desire and fulfilment has found a brave new voice in Rosalyn D’ Mello’s erotic memoir, A Handbook for my Lover.
Back in the 4th century the Kamasutra was a handbook that celebrated eroticism and life devoted to sensory pleasures. Contemporary Indian erotic literature has, however, struggled to articulate the modern Indian woman’s desires and the Indian man in the context of an independent woman in command of her sexual agency.
While sex writing and pornography has its venues, the effort to express what past masters had done with consummate ease in poetry, song, story, painting or sculpture remains in the realm of the inarticulate. The extrapolation of desire, the sensual and its aesthetics are sacrificed in the attempt to express sexuality. Many times, this results in a hurried and muddled objectification of women.
The modern Indian woman, and her journey into self-awareness through sex, heartache and desire and fulfilment has now found a brave new voice in Rosalyn D’ Mello’s erotic memoir, A Handbook for my Lover.
“For centuries women have been oppressed through the patriarchal denial of their basic existence as sexual beings. The subsumption of the domain of the erotic can most definitely be one of the means of asserting our cultural and sexual existence as women,” says D’Mello.
Early on, in the book, D’ Mello speaks of her epistolary nonfiction as an “episode of language.” Written as a “handbook” to her lover, 30 years her senior, the book allows the erotic to segue along the path in pursuit of creativity.
“The book was an attempt to come to terms with the complexity of my relationship with an older lover and an unconventional relationship, where we neither live together nor intend to marry. The crux of our relationship was the fact that we were financially independent, that we were both pursuing our individual artistic inclinations, and yet, had become integral to each other’s lives, pushing each other to excel, supporting each other and bringing out in each other the best versions of ourselves”, she says.
In this, A Handbook for my Lover breaks new ground. This is a sexually intimate bildungsroman of a 23-year-old ingénue and an internationally renowned 53-year-old photographer. D’Mello calls him her muse, and has written with a brutal honesty unsparing of minutiae of the body, the space they inhabit, and the life they share.
A Handbook for my Lover in itself is a beautiful object invoking the sensory and tactile. The cover image by Prabuddha Dasgupta conveys the erotic in the succulent and juicy image of a pod with plump sepals, in a monochrome of greys. It is offset by the book’s edges, glazed in sumptuous wine red. “I wanted the physical form of the book to symbolize its contents” and the “immense passion and commitment” that went into the making of this book, explains D’Mello.
Like Sarte and Simone — D’Mello brings up the reference — her lover and she live in different homes “three minutes away” from each other, in Delhi. Their evenings are theirs to seek artistic and cultural recreation in their fields, to be in the company of books, or to hold conversations at their table over food and drink. She is a freelance art writer and he, a photographer. Their nights are spent in each other’s company — on many nights they have sex. On others, she is torn by the nature of their relationship, his distance, the torment of love, its capability to hurt, and capacity to heal.
There is unspoken anger as the dedication in the book suggests that both lovers want to hold their ground. He probably “doesn’t give a f**k” about her book, while all the while encouraging her to write it and not making the effort to read it after it has been written. And she holds on to her independence even as she admits how much he has shaped her as she culls the material of their relationship for her book and makes sense of her life.
D’Mello’s writing excels when she explores the desire the female body invokes, self-stimulation, and the body’s capacity for arousal and fulfilment in thought and deed. She explains that the relationship helped her to “experience the world more sensuously. I began to delight in the acts of reading, drinking, feasting, cooking and being exposed to the world of art”. The idea is to write honestly about the constant arousal, and the pleasure in the ephemeral.
Before D’Mello, white European and American feminists have been debating and writing on the subject in a confessional manner, including the abasement and sexual politics that comes in with it. D’Mello speaks about Chris Krau’s I Love Dick, a 1997 book she learnt about after writing Handbook..., and its “theatre of shame” or ‘cunty exegesis’. Krau’s is a white American woman’s sexual memoir especially about Dick, an art critic. The black woman too has been a prominent figure in penning songs or writing about the erotic as power. Andre Lorde rejected the patriarchal way of looking at women and their sexuality to claim the “erotic to the path of creativity” for the black woman.
Toni Morrison (in Jazz ,1992) spoke about sexual and cultural coexistence as vocalized in the wealth of music of blueswomen. Canonical female blues singers like Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin made music with explicit eroticism in their songs. There was an electric charge in the woman getting past the messiness of heartbreak and domestic tragedy to get in touch with their erotic inner self. D’Mello admits black feminist literature and the work of Indian saint poets like Andal and Mirabai were part of her learning as a student of literature and at her earlier job as an editor with Zubaan, and have all found their way into her book as thoughts and ideas.
There are moments of indulgence (where John Coltrane’s music is akin to the lovers’ snores and a chapter is devoted to the lovers’ sleep patterns); but the author comes across as much more giving and maternal. It’s her refusal to gloss over the abjection that comes in the wake of the mess that relationships are that makes the book a brave one.
As a valiant Indian female voice that negates the prudish and adopts the erotic, D’Mello’s handbook is a noteworthy read.
The author is senior commissioning editor, Lonely Planet.
A Handbook for my Lover
Rs.499; PP 231