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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Book excerpt: A Handbook For My Lover

As my body melts into sweat, as sweat mingles with dust, as heat and dust collide, as the floor reveals itself with each stroke of broom and cloth, I’m convinced that love isn’t many-splendoured or virtuous. It is a dirty, beleaguered thing. I wonder if Jimmy Porter, the angry young man in John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, was right when he told his wife Alison, “It’s no good fooling about with love, you know. You can’t fall into it like a soft job without dirtying your hands. It takes muscle and guts. If you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice, tidy soul, you better give up the whole idea of life and become a saint, because you’ll never make it as a human being.’

***

Day two.

It was evening all afternoon. It was raining and it was about to rain. My back had given way after all the sprucing. I took a pill and fell asleep on the bed while you worked in your study. I woke up and made a pot of Castleton.

“What else can I do?" I asked.

“If you could just wave a magic wand and make all of this go away? Like in the movies, just a single swoosh and everything that was messy is suddenly in order," you said.

“You’re confusing me with Mary Poppins," I said and smiled and meant it.

Three hours later, when we reconvened on the marble-top table-for-two for some single malt, you were amazed by the transformation.

“I see you waved your magic wand." you said. “Are you working?" you asked.

“Yes, I was writing about the rats."

“Why?"

“Because you told me to."

Last evening two rats had walked into your trap. You’d called me to see for myself. I was afraid if I made conversation with them, I might feel the urge to adopt them.

“Come on, say hello," you said. “Maybe you can write about them."

“Is that a challenge?"

“Maybe."

I watched the two rats. One of them was resigned to his captivity. Maybe that one was your embodiment. He sat idly in a corner and awaited his fate while his companion who, I imagined was my animal counterpart, seemed determined to push herself through the narrow bars and escape.

Later, when we went to release the couple in the wilderness behind your house, I wasn’t surprised when one rat made a quick getaway and pranced out of the cage while the other had to be cajoled into leaving.

“Come on," you urged him.

“Stockholm syndrome," I said.

I thought of Barthes’ definition of Catastrophe: Violent crisis during which the subject, experiencing the amorous situation as a definitive impasse, a trap from which he can never escape, sees himself doomed to total destruction.

As we sipped the peaty Ardbeg you’d bought, duty-free, I wanted to ask you if you felt the same way about the rats; if, like me, you saw in them a reflection of our catastrophe. But you distracted me.

“So, if I’d told you not to write about the rats, would you not have written about them?"

“No. You can’t control what I don’t write just as I can’t control what I write."

“Do I figure prominently in what you’re writing?" you asked.

“Maybe."

“So when you’re done, should I go through it with red ink and cross off the parts that misrepresent me?"

“You could, but it wouldn’t deter me. Don’t worry; I haven’t revealed your identity. I haven’t used your name. Just your initials, and only once, in the dedication.’

I have my doubts about whether you’ll even read this from start to finish. I debated writing it to begin with, especially since you’re such a reluctant reader. But I took Barthes’ advice. To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love, to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not—this is the beginning of writing.

It’s a peculiar book I’m writing. It isn’t a love letter. It isn’t an ode. It pretends to be an instruction manual, but only succeeds in parts. I prefer to call it a handbook, or a survival kit, or an episode of language. I know I said it was, but it isn’t quite dedicated to you.

Rather, it is directed at you.

It was something I started a year ago, after a conversation with you over the phone after midnight, a few months after we first began, long-distance. I was in Bombay, the city of my childhood.

You were home in Delhi. I heard my phone ring just as I was about to sleep. It was the ringtone I’d reserved for your calls, Madeleine Peyroux’s version of Cohen’s ‘Dance me to the end of love’. We exchanged details about the day. Mine was charmed as usual. I’d spent hours staring into the sea, as if in search of some epiphany. Your body burned in Delhi’s afternoon heat and the sky sent no breezes to quell you at twilight.

I can’t recall exactly how it came to pass, but the conversation drifted to an old flame of mine (he who could make the violins come). Yes, I had spotted him that morning and he had appeared luminous, as if he had swallowed all of last night’s stars and his skin had begun to gleam. You were confused. Justifiably. Who was this ex-flame? What was his co-ordinate on my map of lost lovers? Did he come before or after you? Did he like my taste? Was he still attuned to my scent? Had I mentioned him before or had I just constructed him out of thin air?

“How many lovers have you had?’ you asked, your voice carefully disguising each word so that the question mark at the end of your statement would seem like genuine curiosity. Except, it wasn’t really a question. There was a tinge of sarcasm and an unmistakable hint of jealousy.

“You’re one to talk!"

“Well, I’m much older than you. It’s only natural that I’ve had a few."

“Maybe someday I’ll tell you. When you’ve earned the right to know."

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India from A Handbook For My Lover, 231 pages, 499.

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