The books of her sex: Rosalyn D’Mello’s not-quite non-fiction

The books of her sex: Rosalyn D’Mello’s not-quite non-fiction
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Some pages into, A Handbook For My Lover, Rosalyn D’Mello offers some synonyms for “handbook”: Instruction Manual, Toolkit, Survival Kit. With these words, she tells a second time what she will tell a third and fourth time and, eventually, show the reader how she will use every bit of her considerable writing ingenuity in the service of becoming visible; this book, she seems to say at the outset, is a self-summoned habeas corpus, and she hopes that the reader will find it, like her own prayers, if not beautiful, then at least wise.

For most of us, our vision of love, lovers and love-making includes a wish for osmosis, for being understood, without instruction. An instruction manual for a lover implies an effort at repair, it implies the absence of osmosis, and therefore plan B, verbal instruction to repair that absence.  When Rosalyn writes of her lover PB, he appears brusque, grouchy, often distant, unattainable, yet possessive; the survival kit, we infer, must help him become warm, perhaps welcoming, even affectionate. And it must educate him, for early in the book we learn something that appears to put D’Mello and her lover in two different worlds: he does not read.

D’Mello does. A Handbook For My Lover might have also been titled A Handbook Of My Lovers, with lovers in the plural. For as much as D’Mello discusses her love of PB – and his body – she also discusses in equal measure the body of literary works that enable her to love well. And while her physical lovers are listed in semi-anonymous initials, the books she loves and the men and women who write them are described with full names, and often with voluptuous quotes from their bodies-of work. The handbook offers, as she promises, an entryway into her through a reconnaissance of her erotic and literary appetites – what she terms, via the French structuralist, Roland Barthes, “an episode of language”.

The lover as the reader

Structuralists work with texts: they follow one text to another, and in the process they look for an overarching system or structure. The trail of texts that litter D’Mello’s book invites the reader to do the same. In between the graphic and often sensuously written interludes of lust and love-making, D’Mello defines herself. Where PB’s body won’t let her, the books she reads will. Look, she seems to be saying to us, I am composed of Susan Sontag, Alain De Botton, Roland Barthes, John Osborne, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath. I have read Proust and I have seen Georgia O’Keefe.

This tale of texts, structurally speaking, very much educates the reader about the building blocks of D’Mello’s culture of the intellectual-erotic. In addition to being an episode of language, the handbook is an episode of culture.

The world that the two lovers inhabit, is as political theorist Sunil Khilnani put it, autrefois, a very particular Idea of India. The lovers drink single malt (Ardberg, Laphroig) and Castleton tea, sans dissonance, amidst a rat-infested, ruin of a home. The sound-track is Nina Simone and JJ Cole, ring tones sing Madeline Peyroux and Leonard Cohen. The film directors are Wong Kar Wai and Michel Gondry. The lovers do their own dishes (well, D’Mello, the nurturing one, does them, mostly) and clean their own toilets.  Like the photography exhibit Inside Out, referenced in the Handbook, the episode of culture in the Handbook also speaks of a certain universal zeitgeist, an international culture that effortlessly makes itself present in sari-clad, cigarette-holding, swaying, beautiful, sepia, Indian bodies.

A matter of identity

Early in what she calls the striptease, D’Mello writes poignantly of race. She endures “the jibes from strangers reminding me of my unfortunate colour, my mother’s protest at my opposition to fairness creams, my dwindling self-esteem”. She prays eventually for wisdom in this matter, but if we follow the structure of her texts, they suggest that this wisdom lies outside the country; Yet, with the exception of Kamala Das, D’Mello’s literary tastes are white European, and American men and women.

Which begs the question, why did an intelligent girl who struggled with being “dark as roasted cocoa” not read more writers of her skin colour? Why, for instance, don’t African-American feminist writers who also wrote first person narratives about race and sexuality, feature in D’Mello’s map of texts?

The theme of race, powerfully spoken of at the book’s outset, is never elaborated upon. The texts lead us to a larger structure, yes, but this larger structure is the episode of culture and language centered around PB. Nevertheless, sometime after she has drunk many single malts, smoked many cigarettes, eaten many gorgeous, lovingly prepared meals and travelled through France, D’Mello picks up her pen to remind us why exactly this book is special, and to speak, at least in whispers, of the overall structure in India.

This happens during the elaboration of the writing of Kamala Das. Between the lines there we hear D’Mello giving language to the India that has changed, the India that she also changes by her writing, an Idea of India in which she can stand publicly, with her lover by her side, something that Kamala could only do in her imagination.

Because she gives the overall structure this nod, because D’Mello tells us that the book does not end, that she will keep reading and writing (and need I add, parenthetically, fucking), the reader might be persuaded – as I was – to hold the above thought in anticipation of more writing from her. For the Handbook is a birth, a becoming, and from the literary fancy-footwork and carnal bodies emerges a picture of a young woman who successfully imagines herself. A Handbook For My Loverbreaks new ground skillfully and well – it is an enjoyable self-portrait of a woman turning 30 amidst a sensual life of food, drink, sex and books.

A Handbook For My Lover, Rosalyn D’Mello, HarperCollins India.

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