Rosalyn D'Mello: The importance of being a diarist

If you don’t have a diary, go out and buy one and commit to writing every day; return to it when the time is right, and you’ll find yourself

Having experienced the distinct misfortune of having to escape my second-floor apartment around midnight, with ghastly electrical fumes invading the air, thanks to the building’s meters spontaneously erupting into flames last summer, I was compelled to make what, at the time, seemed like the most significant decision of my life: what to take with me.

There are days when I return to my Moleskines  and struggle to recognise the person I was five years ago, sometimes even two days ago. Representation pic/Thinkstock
There are days when I return to my Moleskines and struggle to recognise the person I was five years ago, sometimes even two days ago. Representation pic/Thinkstock

After our quick-witted downstairs neighbour managed to douse the flames by breaking a pot and throwing moist soil against their tongues, we were able to make the trip down two flights of stairs. I took my iPad with me, the same one I’m using to write this column. But the moment I reached safe, dry ground I knew I had made a grave error of judgment. I should have taken my stack of diaries. Not the one gold necklace I had managed to buy once in Dubai using a small portion of my meagre savings made from writing. Not my collection of autographed books or my exquisite set of ceramic bowls, or even my passport. All of them were dispensable. The diaries, the consequence of at least 20 years of documentation, were not.

It was ironic, because just around then, I’d come across a story about the poet Philip Larkin, who, when he was being ushered away in an ambulance — seemingly breathing the last of his remaining breaths — apparently called out to his wife with all the candour of an emergency squeal: “Burn the diaries!” He was probably aware of the intimacy of their contents, their revelatory possibilities over which he could exert no control from his grave. And yet, if I were her, I would have disobeyed this last wish. I would have let them live.

In an increasingly digital age, where both our joyous and mundane activities are recorded in virtual reams over social media and Evernote, a lot of us have forgotten the everyday thrill of hand-writing our innermost thoughts, fantasies and desires. While our public expositions have become vital to the cause of articulating ourselves, what of the self-awareness which only that which was privately documented can deliver?

There are days when I return to my Moleskines (my building, mercifully, didn’t burn down) and struggle to recognise the person I was five years ago, sometimes even two days ago. I’ve never been a daily diarist, but I’ve always been in the habit of maintaining at least three different diaries at any given moment, each for a specific meditative purpose that is only fathomable to me. They are meant for no one else, their purpose is purely temporal; to use words to make sense of sensations. Interspersed between pages is often a grocery list, or a travel itinerary, or calculated summaries of all the money owed to me. Every now and then, though, I stumble upon a passage or two that blows my mind and reconfirms what I otherwise often doubt — my writerly abilities.

A few days ago, Gallery Espace in New Delhi opened a gorgeous group show called ‘Diary Entries’. The exhibition, instead of being literal, actually focused on the relevance of the diary to creative practice, how the ‘entry’ marks the beginning of a universe of thought. All the artists were women, all highly accomplished in their individual engagement with material. Viewed as a thought collective, the works by Hemali Bhuta, Paula Sengupta, Benitha Perciyal, Nilima Sheikh, and Sheba Chhachhi were poetic reflections of their rigorous commitment to the artistic process and reconfirmed my faith in the gesture of self-revelation.

“Women have always been diarists, whether consciously or unconsciously”. That’s a thought from an entry I made a few days ago. Maybe it’s time to revisit and reclaim that space. If you’re reading this and you don’t own or keep a diary, go out and buy one. Commit to writing at least one short paragraph daily. Don’t re-read it, don’t edit it, don’t share it with anyone. Return to it when the time is right and you’ll find yourself.

This is what I found when I was browsing through my journal entries from four months ago, when my book was at the printer:

“In writing this memoir, I exposed myself too elaborately. I allowed myself to be irrepressible. I stripped to almost my core, revealing more than I should have, even delighting in the revelation. I did not seek repentance for the many sins of which I wrote. I refused to call myself a sinner. I challenged the very conception of sin. I revelled in my shame, made a theatre of its exhibition. I hung my dirty laundry out to dry in the town square. I sought ecstasy in pleasure. I took great pride in my indulgences. I did not ask for forgiveness. I demanded only to be read. I corrupted myself with ambition. I lived beyond my means. I trespassed into forbidden territory, partook of fruit I stole myself from orchards that did not belong to me. I gave too much of myself, more than there was to share. I grasped the immensity of my insignificance but continued to live as though my words were somehow exigent to the cause of mankind’s redemption, somehow urgent to the mission of transcendence. I lived and loved without guilt. I succumbed to my passions. I survived my history of lust. I subverted the truth. I idealised my body. I dared to want more than was my allotted share. I continue to desire.”

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputed art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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