CHENNAI: Rosalyn D’Mello’s memoir A Handbook For My Lover explores desire, selfhood and love from the perspective of an unconventional young woman. In Chennai for a book reading, she tells CE:
One of the things I loved about the concept was how it subverts the notion that the muse is a woman and the maker is a man. Would you agree that your book is a feminist text?
Yes, definitely. But not in an expected way. The prologue best demonstrates the nuanced feminist position that marks the book. The sari-clad narrator proceeds to strip to her almost core while simultaneously confessing to her lover things she ought to have told him, things he ought to have known. It is through this act of exposure that she claims agency for herself. Everything that comes after: the vulnerability, the naked honesty, the feeling of shame…all of that gets validated because she is the one controlling the narrative. It is through her eyes that we know her lover.
What constitutes eroticism to you?
For me, eroticism is a function of language, whether visual or verbal or tactile. It is about a raw slowness, about pauses, about arousal.
You’ve been in a relationship for over a decade but live independently, and have no plans to conform to societal pressures like marriage. Can you tell us a little about the choices and challenges you’ve faced?
I met my lover when I was 23. He was 53 at the time, and the motto of our relationship was taking it one day at a time and seeing where it goes. I love that ours is an unconventional arrangement where we don’t traditionally ‘live together’ or have any intentions of marrying. It puts the onus of our commitment on our mutual consensus and not any socially sanctioned agreement. But of course, the challenges are many. The absence of role models for women like me, unmarried, in their 30s and 40s is quite revealing. So, when you choose a life that is different from that of your peers, and from everything you’ve known, you can sometimes second-guess yourself. I think this is more apparent when it comes to children. There are many women like me who are past 30 and feel absolutely no maternal calling. Yet, they are made to feel the pressure of their child-bearing potential every day, as if they were somehow failing the world by choosing to live alternative lives.
When A Handbook For My Lover was first announced, the hype around it was rather sensational. It didn’t capture how literary the book is. What are your thoughts about how women writers are marketed?
Even while I was writing the book, a lot of reporters would call me on account of the trend stories they were doing, all of which were connected to the sensationalist Fifty Shades of Grey. At the time, it felt pointless to explain that my book was more of a literary endeavour. It was first and foremost about language, it sought to be an episode of longing, an epistle of desire. I think women writers are either marketed sensationally or not at all. And women writers like me are not often considered ‘serious’ because we ‘dabble’ in erotica; we’re not asked weighty questions about desire or language. Instead, we are asked to defend our book from being labelled pornography, and to speak about how our parents/family has reacted to a book; things no half-wit reporter would ever ask a male writer.
Despite being addressed to your partner, I felt you were writing not a handbook for your lover, but a paean to lovers like you.
It was very important to me that the book went beyond just the details of our relationship. I wanted to encapsulate the mundane-ness of love and the everyday texture of it, but I also wanted to universalise it, make it about love in general, any kind of romantic or passionate love, and hence the reference to various literary works. I think that contextual framework is the reason why a voyeur doesn’t feel completely like a voyeur. The reader completes the process of the act of book-writing by bringing it full circle, by serving almost like a stand-in for lover who simply doesn’t read.
(The writer is a columnist with City Express)