Rosalyn D’Mello On Baring It All In ‘A Handbook For My Lover’
Rosalyn D’Mello took over 6 years to write her memoir ‘A Handbook for My Lover’. The book is an account of her relationship with a prominent man who is 30 years older than her, and about how she made sense of this unique dynamic.
She describes the book as an act of stripping, an exploration of oneself. She says that she underwent a process of self-actualisation while writing.
The book boldly deals with subjects that are often considered unconventional in society. There are chapters on masturbation, menstruation, and even sleeping positions. And the book is erotic in many portions. But it is also about so much more than the sum of its chapters, she says.
She speaks to us about how she deals with baring her private life in a public arena, about how her family is still not comfortable with her decisions, about writing on art, and much more.
1. What was the toughest part about bringing your personal life into the public arena, while writing your book, A Handbook for my Lover? What was the conversation like at home?
I was very sure that I wanted to write a book that felt like an exposition of the self, the idea being to promote a certain feminine irrepressibility, to relate one’s life to the textual universe that has always absorbed me and to speak about the condition of being in love, of being vulnerable and susceptible to another being, to feel so overwhelmed by passion that writing becomes a space for refuge, and also a way of memorialising the complexity of emotions I found myself having to deal with.
I was asked later by my mother why I hadn’t spared a thought for what she and the rest of the family would think. I told her that first and foremost I was a writer, and my obligation had to be first to my art
Like Kamala Das says, you can either be a writer or a well-loved member of the family. I chose to be a writer, or rather, I obeyed a certain calling.
2. You mentioned you wrote the book in real time, over the course of years as your relationship unfolded. Can you speak more about how this unfolded and your writing process?
I began writing the book as a way of making sense with what was unfolded. I sensed from the beginning that this relationship with the lover was unusual and unique, and would mark me for the rest of my life. I started to document many everyday things, small and big intimacies that we shared, conversations, arguments, debates, sexual encounters. I became the chronicler of our relationship, perhaps also persuaded by the fact that the lover’s memory was unreliable. It fell upon me to record our affair. So every time we had a ‘moment’, I made notes. Over time, patterns began to emerge and the book began to assume a form, and I decided to go along with it to see where it took us. It was like subjecting oneself to time, to uncertainties, to live the experience. This is why I often say that A Handbook For My Lover is the consequence of my blood and sweat and tears.
3. There has been a lot of conversation around which genre the book fits into. What would you say?
I would say it belongs to the genre of the memoir. It isn’t necessarily autobiography. The whole idea of the book’s narrative structure is that it reads like letters written by me to my loved one.
The reader is someone who intercepts these letters and reads them as if spying on a relationship that is unfolding. Sometimes it’s too much for the reader, and that discomfort was intentional
A lot of readers, even reviewers, have mistakenly referred to the book as a novel, and I actually take that as a compliment, it attests to the book’s success, given that it has no real plot, and just two main protagonists. It is also erotic in many portions, and it’s very convenient to call it erotica, but it is also about so much more, it is much more than the sum of its chapters.
4. How has life changed after the book’s release?
Not at all, actually. The greatest thing about having your first book out, though, is the feeling of having seen something true.
When I was writing the book I was wrestling with so much self doubt. Because of its unusual nature, I was always not confident about being able to pull it off. But I did, and that feeling of accomplishment is what propels you forward to do the next book and the book after that, and the one that will inevitably follow
In the six years that I spent writing the book, I was certain that I could only move forward with my life if I got this book out of my system. Once I did, or rather, now that I have, I actually feel somewhat disconnected from it already. I’m surprisingly open to critique. The response from readers has been most overwhelming.
5. You mentioned still feeling like you had to hide your book in your parents’ home. What are some stereotypes that you still have to grapple with? And how do you come to terms with them?
I’ve come to learn that my values are very different from the rest of my family. They believe in living heteronormative lives, in conforming to societal expectations and performing roles that are laid out and expected of you. I often feel like an aberration, an anomaly. And that can sometimes make one feel quite lonely.
Thankfully, I’ve had an amazingly supportive network of friends who have become family, and an astonishingly encouraging sisterhood of fellow feminist writers who assure me that I am not alone in my struggle to be an independent woman who is not financially or morally dependent on anyone else.
I haven’t had to grapple with stereotypes, per se, just with living in a range of different worlds, the community I come from — Bombay Goan, the literary community, half of which has adopted me, the other half that has almost ostracized my book, and then a nurturing universe that is the art world that I inhabit most prominently. It’s the constant swinging between these different worlds that can be somewhat challenging, but it keeps me grounded.
6. What project are you working on next?
I’m working on several projects. My most ambitious next book is provisionally called “Letters to the Dead and the Imagined”, letters to dead people and fictional characters, essentially people who are not in a position to reply.
There’s another book I’m simultaneously working on, which is dedicated to my best friend, Mandakini Gahlot, and is targeted at people like her and me, who have the courage to live independent lives, but is centered around food and the kitchen. Since I’ve also been writing a monthly column for Open Magazine on my visits to artists’ studios, I’m hoping sometime next year to turn that into a book. There are one or two anthologies that I have in mind that I’d like to edit, too.
7. You are a also a freelance art writer. Which upcoming artists are you most excited about? Do you have any advice on how to learn about and understand art if you are a novice?
There’s a very thriving art scene in India, and I have a bunch of absolute favourites among the younger generation, from Prabhakar Pachpute to Parul Gupta, Rehaan Engineer, Sujith SN, Benitha Perciyal, Avishek Sen, Manish Nai, Hemali Bhuta, Shreyas Karle, and so many more.
I think the best way to learn about art is to start seeing shows in galleries and to thus create a constellation where one artist leads to another artist and to another. As someone with no degree in art history or training in art, I think the beauty lies in discovering art, and it’s wonderful to bring a naive perspective sometimes, it makes you more open-minded.