“I love you and I miss you.” The letter, written in spidery handwriting, had been written by a 14-year-old boy to a 12-year-old me, way back in the late Eighties. Most of the letter related mundane details of his day and ended with that sentence, spiky with innocent promise. I chanced upon that old letter when we we were selling our house a few years ago. In the process of packing up my room, I found a box full of paper, slightly yellowed with age and nostalgia. They were letters to my friends, my father, and a bunch of love letters, written to me over a few decades, by different amours professing different degrees of love. Flipping through them was like a chronicle of minor romances, major loves, dramatic goodbyes, upheavals and heartaches. Letters written on letter-writing paper, notebook paper, even notepads from some club or hotel. A couple of the letters even had a word here or there smudged by a tear drop, marked for posterity. Some were crumpled, a few were torn and then patched together.
In the beginning, there was love and then, there were love letters. Back then, before mobile phones and instant messages and even more instant gratification, we wrote letters to one another. I wouldn’t necessarily call it the age of innocence, but that bygone era was certainly one when patience was a virtue and matters of the heart seemed more emotional and less practical. Pen and paper were Dutch courage — with them, you could sometimes say what you couldn’t when standing in front of the object of your affection. Another friend remembers how in the early Nineties, before email and mobile phones had entered our lives, he would write many letters as a brooding 21-year-old to his then girlfriend. Even though they were in the same city. Letters which professed some deep love or angst which was easier expressed through the written word than the spoken. Even a poem, when inspiration struck.
With words, you could bare your soul and explain yourself without fear of rejection or reprobation. And then bite your nails while waiting for the postman or your friend whom you’d roped to be your courier to deliver the missive. Rejections could be delivered without having to face the one whose hopes you were dashing. Sometimes, finely-spun words allowed love to seem deeper than it actually was. At other times, just the fact that one had taken the effort that it took to write a letter was romantic enough.
A friend’s grandfather used to send letters to his wife whenever he went on tour. He also had truly ghastly handwriting, which is why most of his family urged him to send telegrams instead of postcards or letters. It seemed the only one who could decipher his scrawl was his wife, who would open the envelope, unfold his letter, smile as she ran her eyes over one side of the letter and then the other, then fold it again and then replace the letter in its envelope. One day, right after a letter had been delivered and read, someone asked her, “What does he say?” My friend’s grandmother replied, “Damned if I know. He’s got terrible handwriting. All I can ever make out is ‘Love, Suresh’ at the end, and that’s also occasionally. But then, I don’t really need to make sense of anything else, do I?”
There’s something about unfolding a letter and running your eyes over its lines that has more poignancy than, say, opening your inbox and putting your ex-lover’s name in Search to find a neat list of emails. Love letters are not neat. Often, they’re like the relationships that birthed them – messy, endearing, all over the place. They offer you a chance to revisit, re-read, laugh over or marvel what may be a distant memory. When I think of romance in the literary sense, I think of Vita Sackwille-West's letters to her husband Harold Nicholson and his to her, which were the basis of the book, Portrait Of a Marriage. They're beautifully written and what a wild and mad marriage they had! Then there are Lord Byron's love letters, Nancy Mitford's letters to Evelyn Waugh (less love letters, and more her doomed romance but still very beautifully written), and Ted Hughes' Last Letter, in which he's still obsessed by his ex-wife Sylvia Plath.
Possibly because of the letters I wrote and got, and those I’ve heard stories of, there’s a certain thrill and secrecy to some of the romances that survived because of letters. Way back in 1941, Firstpost editor Sandip Roy’s great aunt and her fiance used to write love letters to each other that were smuggled back and forth in her brother’s socks.
[big-image title="The art of love letters. ShutterStock" src="https://images.firstpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/The-art-of-love-letters.jpg" ]
A friend’s mother told me how when her husband and she were courting almost 50 years ago, they’d write to each other daily. He was in the army and his letters used to get checked and were therefore delayed. Often the sequence of letters would get messed up. So, they took to numbering each letter, so they’d know which letter was being replied to and the order in which the letters needed to be read. She still has the letters, both hers and her husband’s. She also remembers how when she was much younger, she once got a letter from an admirer and had to read it in three parts, in the bathroom, afraid that it would fall into her parents’ hands.
I discovered the art of writing when I was around 10 years old. Our family help, who wasn’t literate, asked me to write postcards to her boyfriend who owned the tea stall opposite our house. I used to read out his responses – written on postcards again - to her and watch the romance develop through the yellow postcards. Then one day, she broke up with him. It turned out that Mister Tea Stall had been a stop-gap romantic arrangement in her life and there was a real Love of Life, whom she had lost. Now that he had returned to her, she dismissed the tea stall owner. Unfortunately, this didn’t unfold like a Woody Allen film. The jilted love told her that if she didn’t stay with him, he’d show all the postcards to my father.
Which was the day I realised how dangerous love letters could be — because if he carried out his threat, that would have meant solitary confinement or instant death for me. Especially since Bengali spelling has never been my strength, so who knows what I actually managed to convey in those letters.
For all its romance, the art of writing was one fraught with potential disasters. A friend remembers a school friend of hers who was a gifted calligrapher. She’d noticed him writing gorgeous cursive doodles while sitting bored in class and mentioned how much she liked that font. Soon after, he started giving her pieces of paper, crammed with exquisite and unreadable calligraphy. They were different fonts, each of them resembling ancient manuscripts – all beautiful and all entirely illegible to my friend. It was only when this boy stopped sitting next to her in class and started saying that she was a snooty, heartless Mata Hari who toyed with tender, love-infused hearts that my friend realised that he’d probably been professing his love in calligraphy. To this day, she’s not sure what he’d written.
I remember when I fell in love for the first time with a literary sort who knew the perfect turn of phrase, I was the recipient of many letters – professing love, dismay, tragedy, trepidation. It was like living in an Evelyn Waugh novel. One of my fondest letter-related memories is of waking up at my best friend’s house on Christmas Day, after calling it quits with the erudite paramour the evening before. I was served a breakfast tray accompanied by a neatly-wrapped copy of The Little Prince and a handwritten letter that had been dropped off at the crack of dawn. It described dramatically our supposed undying love and how this love would last forever even if we didn’t end up together. Which it didn’t, of course. The letter proved to have better longevity than the love it carried in its papery cradle.
The joy to holding paper in your hands, being surprised by an envelope addressed to you, the fear of having a love letter fall into the wrong hands, reading the words that seemed so inadequate when we were in love and that seem so dramatic in hindsight, the wait for a reply, the soreness that lingered in your fingertips after writing pages and pages to the one you love – perhaps the millenials will speak of their Whatsapp messages and Tinder notifications with the same fond nostalgia in a few decades. To those of us who have held and written love letters though, there’s no virtual archive that can feel quite the same. Dear love letters, we love you and we miss you.
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Updated Date: Aug 13, 2015 14:57:03 IST