Off-Centre Society

To stranger, with love: When requests to write romantic letters came my way

Close-up of human hands passing love note SM

Close-up of human hands passing love note SM | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

There was a time in my life when I wrote many love letters. In each letter, I pretended to be a different person.

Does new love inspire us to become another person? Memes and themes in movies and social media articulate the disappointment of dates showing up different from what they promise online. Did they look taller on the website? Trimmer? Heck, younger? What have I got myself into?

In the world I’m trying to remember, there was no chance to become a more attractive person. Handwritten letters offered no space for photoshopping final touches in. Besides, all lovers — real, past, and potential — knew one another, all too well.

These were boys between classes 5 and 10, living in a boarding school outside Kolkata run by a revered Hindu monastic order. They saw their families once a week on Sunday afternoons. During those visits, they developed intense crushes, often lustful ones, on their friends’ mothers, sisters, cousins.

The rest of the week, the boys fell in love with one another. The terms “best friend”, “best brother”, had deeply erotic hearts. It was an atmosphere bruised by the sharpness of the absurd. The boys lived in a saffron den, vowing the austerity of the brahmacharya years, with their eyes unflinchingly on material success in a secular world — the prosperous life of the householder enriched by comfort and prosperity as that can only be brought by IITs and medical colleges.

With eyes on a future of heteronormative bliss set up by the bourgeois wealth-accumulation, they lived a life without electric fans and hot water, where TV and films were rarely permitted luxuries, where celibacy had to muzzle the language of puberty. Living under the expectation to emulate their saffron mentors, they fell in love with each other, knowing more often than not, that such love held little meaning in the daylit world of straight lives to which they were doomed to return.

Carnival of love

I, too, longed to be part of this carnival of love. But nursing deep wounds from a traumatised family life, I was a shy and deeply diffident child, withdrawn from most of the social energy of the dorms. But one skill made me a part of the scene. In that austere, tech-deprived world, the only way a boy could reach out to his crush was through handwritten letters. I was spotted as someone who had a way with words, and soon, requests to write love letters started to come my way.

It would not be till many years later that I would realise what the writing of love letters could mean to the novelist. Each letter required me to become the boy who asked for it, a unique character in that sea of hormone-ravaged teenagers, to imagine love and lust for another boy. The emotional entanglement was something for which, left to myself, I could sometimes only gather comic laughter, and sometimes, unnamable desires of my own. But my job wasn’t to be myself; it was to become someone else, someone who was nothing like me, to feel the variegated colours of their romance and find the best language for it.

The truth is that while writing those letters, I felt a strange blend of feelings that I did not think could exist for me. It was a magical atmosphere of the spiritual, the celibate, and the horny that for years, I wanted to capture in a novel. It was not till the writing of The Scent of God , published shortly after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India in 2018, that I would again feel that tingling mix of emotions, the sprouting of desire in an adolescent self that fought joy and guilt at the same time.

There was never a more exhilarating time being other people. I became a wild and powerful athlete, a rowdy often punished by teachers, who fell in love with a thin, soft-natured boy with a beautiful singing voice who had the habit of touching you while singing; a curly-haired, stammering dancer who longed for a soccer-playing math geek, a boy from a village close by; a smart debater who wanted to be a monk, whose knees turned into butter when he saw a boy I thought was the most boring idiot ever, a mindless pursuant of engineering entrance exams.

To Cupid

The donning of radically different subjectivities was a mind-blowing exercise that, I later realised, was hard to retain even for those who produced love letters for money. I was recently struck by Kanupriya Dhingra’s fascinating research on the love letter manuals that lie rejected in the book market in Daryaganj in Delhi, with letters written to such flaming addressees as Priyatame and Praneshwari, to “ mere prem-path ke chiraag Jijaji ” — the lamp along my love path, brother-in-law, to mere Cupid, “ mere prem devta ”. Who wrote these love letters, and who got the royalties? Back in the non-monetised economy of boarding school, I used to claim homemade goodies for payment before the crafting of the letters became their own eerie reward.

One Abul Hashem, author of a love letter manual, Dhingra tells us in an essay in The Caravan , is also the brains behind General English: With Multiple-Choice Practice Questions , MBA Entrance Examinations Guide: Popular Master Guide , and Interview Manual: Interview Techniques & Models . Such a genius turns out to be a god-like figure; in spite of insistent pursuit, Dhingra was unable to find the enigmatic Hashem, or indeed establish for a fact that he actually exists. Another publisher was more forthcoming: “We compile by borrowing material from here and there. We could not have written the entire book on our own.”

It is the admission of the kind of dishonesty that is the lifeline of art. Impersonation, however, is not dishonesty in the moral yardstick of art. A staggered and differential devotion of honesty to the experience of the moment, the character of the moment, adds up to a far greater narrative of honesty, be it the manipulation of the puppet, the emotion of an actor, or the empathies claimed by a writer. It is far from coincidental that the social romance novel in Hindi started the flourish, as Francesca Orsini has shown, in the early 1900s, around the same time the very first Indian love letter manuals, written in Urdu, started to appear.

The amorphousness of honesty between reality and representation becomes a dangerous affair as it fatally blurs the line between art and life. Whose desires do you feel when you write a love letter for someone else, what kind of desire? Did the English novel need the shapeless morality of the ghost-crafted love letter to come into existence? How did impersonated love letters come to shape epistolary novels? What did it mean that Samuel Richardson, the pioneer of the English novel, was much better at voicing the erotic longings of working class women than those of aristocratic men? It made Pamela and Clarissa greater novels than his poor third, The History of Sir Charles Grandison . But what does it say about the stirrings felt inside the body and soul of the novelist?

The author’s novels include The Firebird , The Scent of God , and the forthcoming The Middle Finger . Twitter: @_saikatmajumdar

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 7:10:49 am |