Essay: The novel and the love letter
Author Saikat Majumdar, who was a sought after writer of love letters at boarding school, reminisces about how the experience influenced his novels and his life
If you Google the term “love-letter writer,” your top hits will be websites that offer help with college admission essays, professional statements of purpose, resumes and CVs, along with letters articulating – get this – professionally written love letters promising to bring back olde-world style and charm. I even came across a website called Pop Your Career – Turn Your Cover Letter into a Professional Love Letter. I guess people who seek the services of CV and application writers can just as well drift into the need for love letters crafted with the panache and finish of the immaculate resume, no matter how retro such letters might be in today’s Instagrammed and Discorded climate.
What if the magic mix is the secret formula of success for both? One is already urged to make one’s cover letter a “professional love letter”. That maybe a cliché from MBA 101 in a D-Grade B-School, but what is more easily forgotten is the amount of aspiration implicit in the emotion of love or courtship. Love might be linked to despair, suicide, alcoholism, but it is just as easily linked to success, possessions, property, family, and security – especially when it’s what society thinks of as the ‘right’ kind of love.
There was a time when the romantic impulse got together with the self-improvement drive to create literary history. The moment that shaped the English novel was a crucial one for the professional love-letter writer, and one drenched deep in the longing for propriety and aspiration. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, sometimes considered the first English novel, both, originates from and constitutes of, letters about romance, pursuit, and courtship, where the needs of virtue are put far above any unruly claim of desire. “To read Richardson,” writes Adelle Waldman, “is to enter a moral universe in which the terms “virtue” and “honesty” are used, unironically, as synonyms for virginity.” In stark contrast to other contemporary fiction – Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, who described her virginity as a “trifle” that could be had easily, and Henry Fielding’s licentious Tom Jones, Richardson held impossibly high moral grounds for his protagonists.
Similar stories exist well beyond the European literary tradition. Francesca Orsini has shown that the social romance novel in Hindi emerged in the early 1900s, around the same time the first Indian love-letter-writing manuals, written in Urdu, started to make their appearance. These manuals and love-letter anthologies reveal an intriguing pattern – a seductive, even titillating surface covering pragmatic advice for moral restraint and acceptable social behaviour. In The Caravan, Kanupriya Dhingra chronicled her adventures with the love-letter manuals in the old book bazaar of Daryaganj in north Delhi. She finds books with letters itemized as: “Tanu’s letter to Shailesh after his lover goes astray,” “A flirt writes to her ex-lover,” “A middle-aged man’s love letter to a nurse,” “Steno-typist’s love letter”, many of them directed to addressees such as “Beloved and My Love,” “the fire along my love path, my Brother-in-law,” and “mere Cupid, mere prem devta”. The authorship of these love-letter manuals, sometimes a true enigma, unites aspirations of various kinds, ranging from the romantic to the academic and the professional. One Abdul Hamid, the author of a manual titled Love Letters, is also the author of General English (with multiple-choice practice questions), MBA Entrance Examinations Guide (Popular Master Guide says the subtitle) and Interview Manual: Interview Techniques & Models.
But in the physical venue of the old book bazaar, other aspirations remain while the romantic ones dissipate. Pocket books on astrology, moneymaking, horoscopes, and other forms of career and future cultivation continue to prosper but love-letter manuals are now all but gone – there are few takers for them these days. Online, they now exist as a promise to revive a retro aesthetic, the charms of a lost, older world, such as the handwritten scroll.
There was a time in my own life when the propriety or aspiration associated with love-letter-writing would have made no sense to me. This was when I had a brief but intense career as a love-letter writer. But these were letters written with a far darker sense of secrecy than any love-letter manual could accommodate. They came into being with the knowledge that their passion would never translate into anything long lasting, or be readable in the larger universe beyond the little, cocooned world that inspired them. These were boys between the ages of 13 and 16, living in a boarding school run by one of the most revered Hindu monastic orders of India. They lived in an atmosphere of spiritual rigour, participating in prayer and worship but in reality, preparing for material success in a secular world with sights set on rewarding professional careers such as engineering and medicine.
It was a world where the boys grew crushes on the mothers and sisters of their classmates on Sunday afternoons, when family came for a two-hour visit. For the rest of the week, they fell in love with other boys. It was a magnetic atmosphere of religion, celibacy and unnameable sexual longing that many years later, I felt I needed to capture in a novel. It was a compulsive need that led to the writing of The Scent of God that came out shortly after the decriminalization of homosexuality in India in 2018, getting caught in the celebrations and the controversies that followed that historic event. In that austere environment, where electric fans and telephones were not allowed and TV and movies only rarely permitted luxuries, the only way people could articulate hidden passions was through the written word. I was spotted as someone who had a way with the word, and quickly, I became the go-to writer of the love letter.
It would take me many years to realise what becoming a professional letter-writer could mean to the writing of fiction. Ghostwriting a letter, you become someone else for a while, take someone else’s desire and make it your own. The truth is that I felt a kind of desire writing these letters that I did not know could exist for me. I would feel it again, years later, in the writing of The Scent of God. In a way, I wrote those desires into existence, and for the first time, I realised that writing could be as primal and as powerful as any act of living.
A pale, plump boy from a rural suburb, the apple of his parents’ eyes, claimed to be a great cricketer. He had the fancy cricket gear to go with the game but not much skill to prove it. He had fallen deeply in love with a boy a year his senior, a lanky guy charged to ring the rising bell, hovering it painfully over our sleepy heads as we tried to climb into awakening. While writing the commissioned letter, I imagined the passion the slow and the heavy might feel for the quick and the shrill. A skilled debater who wanted to be a monk fell in love with a quiet boy whose sole goal in life was to crack the engineering entrance tests and land a plush job. And there were so many others.
The impersonation of desire spilled out to the world of heteronormative daylight. A friend fell in “love” with a girl of whom he caught a fleeting glance. He asked another friend to write a letter to the girl on his behalf; a third friend played messenger and conveyed the letter to the girl. For enigmatic teenage reasons of her own, the girl reciprocated favourably. A series of letters were exchanged, and one day, a meeting of the lovers felt essential.
Confusion erupted, and bitter rivalries. Three boys were engaged in the letter-cruising: the messenger, the ghostwriter, and the original owner of the fleeting crush. Who did she want to meet? Who had the right to meet her? Things threatened to get out of hand.
As it happened, she got together with the writer of the letters who did such a lovely job of impersonating his friend in love, and they’ve been together ever since.
Becoming another person creates fictions; sometimes they derail lives.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird, The Scent of God, and The Middle Finger. @_saikatmajumdar