To strip you must first wear your sins like clothes.
This act of dressing demands a scholarly acquaintance with guilt and nakedness, and an obsession with redemption. Eve, too, was initiated into the kingdom of strip when she first ate the forbidden fruit and experienced an aftertaste of shame. Adam participated, and for the first time understood what it meant to dress and undress. ‘And their eyes were open,’ the book of Genesis tells us. ‘And they were conscious that they had no clothing and they made themselves coats of leaves stitched together.’
From them we inherited the act of stripping.
To strip you must contend with shame. You must learn to make too much of dust.
Take your time with revelation. Too much, too soon, and the epiphany of naked flesh will be irrevocably lost.
Stripping is a function of movement. Do not unravel in chronological order. Do not be distracted by time. Do not worry about sequence.
There is no law that dictates what to undo first. To start with the top-most button and make your way down to the last indicates a grievous lack of imagination.
To strip is to confess. To lay bare. To expose yourself to a pair of possibly unforgiving eyes. There is no beginning and no obvious end. Beneath the veneer of clothes is not just the naked body but a universe of skin and scars, and the memory of touch.
To strip you need an audience. A single voyeur will do. Come in. Sit down. Keep your hands firmly on either side of your chair. Sure, you may smoke a cigarette. Even pour yourself a glass of single malt, if you like.
There’s something I’d like to show you. Something that I’d like you to see. I know you’ve witnessed it all before, but this time it’s different. This time I am going to strip while you watch. As I undo each layer, I’ll make my little confessions about things I ought to have told you, things you ought to have known. We cannot proceed with the contents of this handbook until we’ve stepped across this line.
I’ve never done this before, but I’ve been practising. There are new things I’ve learned to do with my fingers, new tricks I’ve learned to do with my waist, new movements I’ve learned to make with my body. But I’ve yet to learn how to titillate.
I shall strip to my almost core.
Except, I’ll keep that diamond on my nipple and that ruby on my cunt.
You shouldn’t see too much.
I first undo the straps of my sandals. My feet make contact with marble.
A few months ago, after several glasses of Laphroaig and the feast I made that we consumed, you returned to your study to work. I stacked the used plates in the sink, turned on some jazz, then proceeded to wash the dishes. It’s become a habit, cleaning your kitchen after we’re both done eating.
I was ravenously happy. I’d cooked Goan sausages with strips of onion and potatoes, and a hint of tamarind juice, and had stir fried beans on the side with crushed pepper, burnt garlic, and a slice of salt. You’d licked your fingers in delight. You were ravenously happy too, and right before you walked into your study, had even thanked me for having sated your appetite. As I soaped and scrubbed each plate, I sang along to Nina Simone singing ‘Just in time’. I w as inebriated. By you. By vinegar. By single malt.
Sometime between Nina mouthing, ‘I was lost’ and ‘The losing dice were tossed’, a quarter plate slipped from my fingers and gravitated towards the floor. It took a while to register. By the time I did, the single unit that was the quarter plate had split into five.
It was irrevocable.
Your kitchen felt like a crime scene. I bent over and picked up every scrap of evidence and I scanned the floor for fingerprints that would trace the incident back to me. Then I washed my hands with soap, pulled out the comics page from the newspaper and used it to wrap the broken bits. I placed this little package in my bag, then searched for the scrubber that had fallen too. I continued with the dishwashing while battling with syntax.
I didn’t break the plate.
The plate broke itself.
I was an innocent bystander.
For days I was saddled with guilt. I knew how attached you were to your kitchen things, most of which were older than I was. I stashed the dismembered corpse of the broken plate in a drawer in my house, hoping it might collect itself and reincarnate. As a spoon, or a tea strainer, or a butter knife … as anything that could be returned to you.
Weeks later the guilt dissipated, leaving behind a vindictive smirk. I felt strangely satisfied with myself. The plate was no ordinary casualty, it was the victim of my revenge for all those times you manhandled my heart, all the times you almost broke me. I carefully disguised its absence by serving breakfast in dinner plates instead. I was surprised you didn’t notice. One day you might and I may not be around to plead guilty to this crime.
Yes. I broke your plate.
I take off my earrings. My body is now unadorned.
When I was a young girl, my parents made too much of broken things. I learned to fear the sounds of breaking—waves cracking against each other and falling apart over the shore; post-pubescent boys and the hoarseness of their voices; wind galloping against trees, swishing and swooshing as somewhere in the distance clouds tumbled against clouds and rumbled with an unceasing, cacophonous laughter; sheets of glass that contained within each atom the sureness of shattering.
My mother, too, was afraid of broken things and would lock the cutlery in the kitchen cupboard, to be exhibited on special occasions. We ate in melamine plates and drank in cheap glasses. Any unintentional transgression with anything fragile was met with severe punishment: lashes of my father’s belt or the snare of my mother’s tongue.
I learned to hide my sins, bury them under the mattress, stash them in the backyard of my cupboard, sweep them outside the house. I learned to disassociate myself from fragments formed by lapses. Over time the secrets piled up. The crimes didn’t go unnoticed but I learned to deny any involvement.
I learned, most of all, that nothing, not even the toughest fortress that surrounds the most indestructible heart, is unbreakable.
My fingers slither across my back in search of hooks only to realise there’s no bra to undo. So they loiter around the front and unhook my blouse. I cover my breasts with the bordered edge of my sari. The palm of my right hand encases my left breast. I can feel my pulse.
I was eleven years old the first time I got my heart broken. I’ve learned nothing from that experience.
I continue to expose it to too much sunlight and let it roam naked at night.
There is some small memory of agony preserved in some dark corner of my skull. I need torchlight to arrive at it. You could say I was possibly too young to know, too young to remember. I was, however, young enough to know what it felt like to hand my heart on a platter to someone who claimed to want it, and then have it returned to me, used and half-discarded, faded and dog-eared.
Never again, I decided. Except, a year later, he borrowed it again. This time I had it bubble-wrapped and insulated from within. Sometime between my giving and his discarding of my offering, I sought refuge in words. I learned to listen with my eyes and speak with my fingers. I learned to surrender uncompromisingly to the moment, to let the words dictate my actions. No harm could come to me as long as I had my tongue, as long as words raged through my blood, as long as I had the venom of language at my disposal.
I got my heart broken when I was eleven years old. I cried in secret, wrote poems in hiding, and stashed the broken pieces in a diary I’ve long since burned.
I unravel my hair and take a few steps towards you so that I’m now at arm’s length. I look at you self-consciously, as if you were a mirror.
On the wall beside my bed hangs a black-and-white photograph of you. It’s a cutout from a magazine. It isn’t larger than the size of my palm and yet you seem to leap out of the invisible frame.
This is the image I often wake up to: you seated casually on a cane chair, your hands wielding a digital camera as if brandishing a weapon. Your eyes intense, your gaze focused, the lens level with your forehead, the stub of a cigarette dangling between the first three fingers of your left hand.
I’ve placed you at a vantage point. From where I lie immersed in dreams, it would seem as though you’re looking down at me, framing me, watching my every move as the morning light stretches across my skin to illuminate my contours.
I wish you’d look at me as purposefully, seek me out with your lens, frame me within the confines of your vision and leave me fixed in your gaze.
I want you to covet me with a single look. I want you to possess me with the purity of your appetite.
I want this image I have of you taped to my wall to become flesh. I want you to watch over my body being intoxicated by dreams. I want you to ache to be inside it, to be one with your subject.
My fingers trail across your body until they confront your fingers. You follow every slight movement and confront the contrast between our shades. Your complexion a delicate strain of brown inherited through a combination of ancestral influences. Mine only slightly lighter than coal.
When I was twelve and self-conscious, I had a nightly ritual. I’d stand in front of the mirror, comb my hair, brush my teeth, wash my face, dry myself, then stare at my reflection, wondering if this was really me. Before sleeping I’d say a little prayer. Always, the same words coursed through my lips because there was only one thing I wanted most of all.
I prayed for beauty.
When I woke, I’d walk to the mirror and face my disappointment. Nothing had changed. My skin was still as dark as roasted cocoa. I’d lament the day; the jibes from strangers reminding me of my unfortunate colour, my mother’s protest at my opposition to fairness creams, my dwindling self-esteem, my battle with choosing clothes whose colour wouldn’t contrast so sharply against the black of my skin.
I was the misfit by default. I hated being different. I was tired of derision. I wanted to be desired.
This petitioning and the ensuing disappointment continued for two years. Until one night, when I decided to alter the texture of my intercession.
I stopped asking for beauty. I asked for wisdom instead.
It has made all the difference.
My pallu slips off my shoulder and touches the floor. My breasts are exposed. I reflect light.
You’ve never quite acknowledged my beauty. Save for that one night, in the midst of that conversation we had about H, your temporary rival, when I explained his desire for me.
‘I’m not surprised,’ you said. ‘You’re young, and beautiful.’
‘Oh! So finally you admit I’m beautiful?’
‘It depends on how one defines beauty.’
‘And what is your conception of beauty?’
‘I think of beauty as light. Light that shines through from within … Yes, I think you’re beautiful.’
I lift the edge of the pallu from the ground and tuck it between your thumb and your tallest finger. I move away from you so that the yards stretch and the sari undrapes itself. At the end of my delicate twirl I’m standing before you in nothing but my petticoat. Almost there. Almost. You look at me and smile. You gesture at me with your eyes, invite me to come closer, to inhabit the space between your legs. You draw the string that holds up my petticoat. It unfurls like a loose rose petal, and sits against your thighs. I’m naked. You explore my texture with your fingers; you linger over the birthmark below my left breast, the scar on my thigh which bears the memory of hot tea, the stretch marks that grace the inner region of my thighs, the blunt edges of the hair that veils my cunt. I place my arms against your shoulders. I lower my body so my tongue is level with your tongue. I wrap my lips around your mouth and administer a soft, delicate kiss designed to leave you wanting. I draw back and stand upright. I’m about to strut away from you when your fingers make contact with my clit. You strip me with one finger. I come undone.
How do I arrive at my truth? How many layers must I undo until you can finally touch my core? Where must I begin?
Perhaps the truth lies scattered across these pages, coded between words. You must discover it for yourself. Because, interspersed with my truth is your truth.
This striptease isn’t complete until I strip you too.
Rosalyn D’Mello is a widely published freelance art writer based in New Delhi and was the editor-in-chief of Blouin Artinfo India. She is a regular contributor to Vogue, Open, Mint Lounge, Art Review and Art Review Asia. Nominated for Forbes’ Best Emerging Art Writer Award in 2014, she was also shortlisted for the inaugural Prudential Eye Art Award for Best Writing on Asian Contemporary Art in 2014. She was associate editor of The Art Critic, a selection of the art writings of Richard Bartholomew from the 1950s to the early 1980s and was a member of the jury of the Prudential Eye Art Award 2015. A Handbook For My Lover is her first book.
Guised as an instructive manual, A Handbook For My Lover chronicles six years in the life of an unconventional affair between a young writer and her lover, a photographer twice her age.
This beautifully written epistle documents the young woman’s demands and desires, her fantasies and eccentricities as she negotiates the minefield that is their relationship in the absence of any destination.
As the author says, 'The Handbook essentially is a series of letters addressed to the lover. Any other reader is a voyeur that is almost intercepting these exchanges, reading them guiltily, as if peering through a hole to watch two people making love. It is in that sense that the book is erotic. It arouses the reader because it plays with her imagination. It rests in between the fictive and the real.'
A Handbook For My Lover is a memoir that revels in the ephemeral pleasures of everyday moments. Feisty and provocative, it is an examination of the shifting equations of power and vulnerability within the intimacies of love and lovemaking.
** Published by Hardie Grant Books. To purchase, click through on the 'Buy' button that appears when you move your curser to the bottom of the page.