“Dear…”. No, no that won’t do. Too formal. “My dear…” Oh god, now I sound like his mother. “My dearest…” Better — but makes it sound like there are others in the running. What about “My darling…”? Too forward? Too pushy?
Love letters are difficult to write, difficult to keep, and difficult to get rid of. Writing out those tenderest, most inarticulable feelings is fraught with danger — there’s nothing so scary as committing yourself on paper. Who knows what the response might be? Horror? Disgust? Worse — laughter?
They’re difficult to keep, because although we’ve all — admit it — got a sock-drawer full of old smoldering flames, there’s always the chance that our latest love discovers them, and these embarrassing expressions of former passion come to light at the trickiest moments. Yet, they’re difficult to get rid of because their symbolic value is so high. They seethe with memories and desire. Full of shared secrets and in-jokes, and references that only make sense to the two of you, they impart a sense of self which is hard to let go. They are documentary evidence, if you are ever called to the witness stand, that you are lovable, that you were beloved. And if you do decide to get rid of them, well you really make sure they are gone. You pile them into a heap, douse them in rum and stand there, dry-eyed, thinking unlovely thoughts about the total bimbo he’s seeing now, and then, having jumped up and down on them comprehensively, send him back the ashes and get on with your life.
“My angel, honey bunch, sweetie pie…” I fling down my pen in frustration. Two cups of coffee and three cigarettes later, the waste paper basket is overflowing and the letter declaring my deepest and darkest passion is still only two words long. My nails are suffering: bitten to the quick in the struggle to make the right choice: typed or handwritten? Well, handwritten, obviously, since typed letters smack of bank statements and court summonses. On the other hand, will he even be able to read my scrawl? Worse: what if he’s a closet scriptologist who diagnoses fickleness in the slant of my descenders and discerns frigidity in the dotting of my i’s and the crossing of my t’s? Retreating behind the democratic shield of Times New Roman twelve-point suddenly seems like not a bad idea after all. What about paper? Should one go for the standard A4 plain xerox, or something a little more personal? Hand-made, with dried flower petals perhaps? Or is that too chi-chi? And then there’s the envelope. Sealed with wax? Too pretentious. Sealed with a lipsticky kiss? Too brazen. Sealed with cow gum? Too tacky. Help!
Luckily for all us tongue-tied Romeos and stuttering Juliets help is at hand. A book for every situation, for every star-cross’d pair, for every unlikely blossoming of tender feeling in any inarticulate heart: A Practical Love-Guide to Write Most Intimate Love-letters by Sunita Aggarwal. Not only does she give sample letters of how to go about declaring your love, but sound and practical responses should you be so fortunate as to be on the receiving end.
I can do no better than to give you, dear Reader, a taster of some of the delights on offer. The first scenario being…
A private tutor falls in love with the mother of his pupils. He is a bachelor and a romantic lover. “Dear Mrs Aggarwal,” he commences, with exemplary restraint, “When you receive this letter you will think that I am ambitious and impertinent simply because I happen to be the private tutor of your little children. But, madam, how can I forget that I am a man and you are a woman?”
How indeed — for he is soon swept away on a flood-tide of passion. Restraint be damned! “I am young, I have a heart and a body overflowing with youth and a desire which can consume the whole universe… I can assure you that even when you will be eighty years old, I can love you. I can hold you in my bosom and arms with the same savage flame as your husband once possessed but now has lost.” (Hmmph. So much for Mister Aggarwal.) “Who says that you are forty years old? At a distance you look like a woman of thirty, and on closer view you look not older than twenty. Twenty, thirty or forty, you are eternally young in my eyes like that heavenly dancer Urbashi at whose feet all the gods in heaven used to faint. Your eternal love-enchanted slave, Sushil.”
Quite a conundrum for the alluring Mrs Aggarwal, you’d think. But she deals with this love-enchanted slave like Martina Navratilova polishing off some unseeded no-hoper.
The balls are in her court. Mrs Aggarwal to serve.
“My dear Sushil,” she starts, “Every woman feels flattered when she is admired and loved by a young man. But then, how can I forget that I am the wife of your master and you are the private tutor of my children?”
Fifteen-love, and nix to your opening gambit, Sushil.
“How can I forgot [sic] that a private tutor is nothing but a domestic servant?…It is not unnatural for you to have been charmed by my beauty and youth even though you say I am old. But I am not old.” (She’s clearly a bit touchy on this point.) “You have seen only the outside of me, probably my saree, my blouse and my shoes. I wish I had the liberty of showing what else I possess inside those garments. Did you ever notice beneath the blouse the glowing contour of my breasts which, merely to touch any god in heaven would feel blessed?”
Killer drop-shot — thirty-love — followed through with a storming volley to the baseline: “But that immortal treasure is not meant for the unholy fingers of a poor private tutor…” Ha! Forty-love.
“Please don’t show your face again to me. Goodbye, my evil enchanter! Yours sincerely.”
Game, set and match: Mrs Aggarwal.
We move swiftly on to the tough, and by all accounts, common case of A Young Zamindar falls in love with a public prostitute when he visits her once or twice in the company of his friends. “You have opened my eyes,” he tells her — though no doubt that’s not all — “You have shown me with your love and care that you too possess the same tender heart, those same sacred emotions, those very passionate feelings which a virtuous woman can possess.” Instead of telling him to sling his hook, shove it, push off, get a life, or any similarly appropriate pithy turn of phrase, the enchanting Pushpa takes time to explain: “It is not unusual for you to have fallen into my traps,” she concedes, “Whoever happens to come in touch with a prostitute can never get out of her clutches…” But — and there’s always a but — “Man is so ungrateful that after having tempted a woman with sins and after having enjoyed the last drop of her youth and beauty throws her into a pit and declares her to be an outcast. Therefore, whatever you have said in your letter is a pack of lies.”
The gloves are off. The audience cheers. “I shall never let you go out of my clutches unless and until you have been completely ruined. I have love for you so long as you have money to pay for my flesh, but when you have become a beggar in the street, it is only then I shall throw you out of my bosom. Yours never, Pushpa.”
When Pushpa comes to shove, you really know it.
Priests fall in love with supplicants. 3rd-class train passengers are smitten by a/c car beauties. Gnarled old gardeners flip-flop over their master’s daughters. Young virtuous wives fall for sexy saddhus. A Hindu widow goes ga-ga over her best friend’s husband. A niece falls in love with her uncle (whose response is one of my favourites: “My dear Shakuntla, Something must be definitely wrong with your brain.”). A coolee girl is smitten by a railway officer. Even — shock, horror — An Indian young man falls in love with a European girl.
“My dear Lizie” (Lesson no. 1. Always try and spell your beloved’s name right). “I know you can never love me because I am an Indian,” he admits, but then goes on to argue his case. See if you can spot the weak link in his otherwise flawless argument: “Lizie, do you know why I am mad after you? Because I am black and illiterate. Because all white women are just like nymphs and angles [sic] in the eyes of Indians… Indian women are so timid, so passive that they seem to be as good as dead. … But then white women… are aggressive even in their kisses. If you bend your head over their lips they will at once jump up to catch your lips with their mouth.” Ouch!
To which ‘Lizie’ replies: “My dear Pratap, Surely I have a great colour prejudice in everything but not in the partnership of the body. We are not like Indian women who have no liberty to choose their partners in life… We have no prejudice against the dark races except in the field of politics wherein we shall always observe the distinction between the dark and the white. We are certainly superior to you in every respect but not in one respect. We have seen by our personal experience that the males of the dark races can lend the white woman much greater pleasure in love and marriage than our own men. The chief reason is probably that the dark races have a much greater animal spirit in them.” Manfully restraining the impulse to kick this little white nymph in her teeth, we read on. “You know how the learned attract the illiterate, how the beautiful attract the ugly, how the healthy and the strong attract the weak and the crippled. So also you attract me because you are black and I am white, because you are barbarous and I am civilised, because you are rude and rough and I am polished and refined, because you are poor and I am rich, because you are ugly and I am lovely.” Well, we reserve judgement on the last point.
And the final nail in the coffin? “So, Pratap, you are always welcome to me even if you are a negro. Your eternal angel, Lizie.”
Leaving our Indian Othello and xenophobic Desdemona to their black and white strobings, we encounter a young Muslim girl caught in the throes of forbidden love for a Hindu boy. The houses of Montague and Capulet are as nothing compared to the love that blooms across the religious divide. Purdah is murder! she cries, and unveils her innermosts. Her fate, in Sunita Aggarwal’s epistolary world, is far kinder than that which awaits others, in the real world, who have risked the wrath of inter-religious love.
“Ayesha,” her lover replies, “I am ready to run any risk in order to possess a jewel like you. I would not care for my parents of for my religion or for even the laws of my country if I have to win you as my bride….you must let me know the time and the place when and where I should meet you in order to snatch you away from your home and to lock you up for ever in my bosom.”
Though some might carp that she’s just trading in one kind of lock-up for another, who could deny the silken allure of romantic bondage? “Looking back and hoping for the freedom of my chains, and lying in your lovin’ arms again” croons Etta James with a voice made husky by smoke and longing, and we hum along with her, feeling the pain of thwarted desire. The letter unanswered. The lover lost.
There is nothing quite so exquisite as the agony of waiting for a reply. “Wo-oah mister postman look and see! Is there a letter in your bag for me? Mister po-oh-ohst-man please…” It’s no accident that these songs are the songs of yesteryear, for the writing of love letters is a dying art, road-kill on the information super-highway, a casualty of the internet. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s sumptuous novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, the hero, Florentino Ariza, is a man whose entire life is filled with his lovefor the beautiful, unattainable Fermina Daza. He’s a disastrous scribe for a shipping company, for his dry legal reports are suffused with an aching lyricism quite unsuited to their subjects: “he had never learned to write without thinking of her.” So he offers his services as a writer of love letters, to “encourage the hopeless with letters of mad adoration.” In one instance, an unbeknownst to each other, both lover and beloved communicate through Florentino and he conducts, by proxy, the passionate romance that he could never fulfill, feeling his way into the hearts of both man and woman to compose letters of heartbreaking solicitude. Over the years, he collects his love letters into a huge tome of three volumes, which no publisher could possibly touch. Yet when he finally has the resources to publish it himself “it was difficult for him the accept the reality that love letters had gone out of fashion.” That was then, and this is now. How sad that in these days of e-mail, we have been reduced to hoping for that little Microsoft icon popping up on the screen to announce with irritating cheerfulness “You gotm@il!” The days of agony and hopefulness are over. It doesn’t matter if you can’t spell or if your mail is full of typos, and it’s almost de rigeur that is should be short, snappy and full of stupid punctuation making smiley faces : ) or tearful ones :, (
The long and languid love letter has given way to mouse-click sentiment.
Subject? ‘ILOVEYOU’. Just open the attachment.