A Little Girl discovers the Powerful Art of Letter Writing
By Jhanavee Sheth
Ever since I was a little girl I have always been in awe of letters. From official letters to deeply romantic ones and everything in between. My father who was a public sector employee, came home one day from office with a thick file inside his briefcase. He would sign them after dinner he told my mother. The file contained a bunch of typewritten cyclostyled letters, all with his initials typed at the bottom of the page. I was perhaps 5 years old but inquisitive enough to sneak into the file when my father was not looking. At that tender age I knew that those letters must be important, since my father’s name was written in bold at the bottom of the page. That chance encounter with a bunch of official letters at the age of five led to my lifelong tryst with letter writing.
I used to watch my mother write letters of absence in our school diary. Since my mother taught English at a school she knew exactly what to write. She once wrote in my absent note, “My daughter fell down from the mango tree while trying to pluck a ripe mango and bruised her knees very badly. Since she won’t be able to wear her school uniform (a skirt) may I request you to kindly grant her one day leave of absence?” The following day when I showed my mother’s note to my class teacher, I realized how important the context of her letter was. She was very concerned and handed over my class monitor duties to another eager classmate for that day. I was even excused from attending the morning assembly. Another funny thing related to a leave letter took place at my mother’s school leaving us all in splits. One of her students who had just taken a transfer from another school had to go on a long leave of absence. After resuming classes, she handed over a note to my mother. The note read “Most humbly and respectfully I beg to state that I could not attend the classes because my grandmother is dying.” Her poor grandmother had already left for her heavenly abode while her granddaughter wrote the letter. But her soul may have momentarily hung in balance, between heaven and Earth.
As I progressed to middle school and the pangs of adolescence set in, I gradually became known as the agony aunt of letters. Boys in my class who bunked classes to avoid a test or simply avoid being scolded for not completing an important homework started demanding my attention. They wanted me to write their leave letters for them. Their their parents had no clue about their truancy. And often these demands came with special requests. It included writing the alphabets at a certain angle so that they were consistent with those written by their real parents.
But by then I was known as a student who had a literary bent of mind. My essays were published in the school magazine. As my fame as a letter writer spread within the four walls of my strict Catholic school I started getting requests even from seniors. They would offer me bribes by way of a Cadbury bar which wasn’t available easily in my small mining town in Madhya Pradesh . Instead, I would ask them to borrow certain books from the library for me. Books that I had my eyes on. Since we weren’t allowed to borrow more than one book against our library cards writing letters became my side hustle. And I was richer by few more stories. Stories that would come handy later. So, I read and reread Catherine Earnshaw’s passionate letters to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights; Darcy’s heartfelt letter to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice earnestly professing his love for the latter, or Kafka’s collection of ardent and often self-deprecating letters to the love of his life Felice Bauer in Letters to Felice. Strange though, my old-fashioned Catholic school would have a treasure trove of such books in its library!
Little did I know that very soon I would be requested to write love letters! I received such requests not only for my handwriting but also because I could compose sentimental words easily. But what was worth noting was most of these ‘demands’ came from girls in my class because they never perceived me as a threat. They knew I would never steal their boyfriends from them. I don’t know why they felt that way. Perhaps because I never showed any interest in boys at least not in public! But I also wrote letters for the boys in my class. The ones who would go out to meet the girls after receiving the same love letters that I had written on their behest. Not that they knew! I was sworn to secrecy, the agony aunt that I was! And unknowingly I became the bridge between bench-crossed lovers. Although letters are a prism of the visual culture of a certain time, I spiced up my own letters with little imagination and a lot of ‘influence’ from all the books I borrowed from our library.
Thinking about books and letters especially love letters, a particular novel stands out for me. The Scent of God is set in an all-boys boarding school, an ashram run by a Hindu monastic order. The novel left a lasting impression on me not just for the sheer sensuality of the ashram’s atmosphere that the author has created but also because of some poignant transgressive love stories that had their seeds planted there. I am reminded of a beautiful moment in the chapter Dancer, Lover, Sufferer, where Mataal, the curly haired boy is found dancing inside the ashram’s prayer hall by Yogi, the newly appointed leader of the prayer hall a few days before Janmashtami, Krishna’s birthday. Mataal was dancing silently to music that was playing in his head. Since he always looked drunk and dopey when he danced, he was nicknamed Mataal-the drunkard! Mataal, whose real name was Bijit, nursed intense feelings for another boy from the school. Like Meera’s love and devotion for Krishna, Mataal too was devoted to Sanket Tudu, the enigmatic tribal footballer who as the author describes ‘looked like a statue carved out of black marble.’ But unlike Meera, whose love for Krishna was ‘dignified’ Mataal not only loved Sanket Tudu but he also wanted to do things to his body, ‘unspeakable’ things. And to profess his fiery and impetuous but equally calm and deep passion and devotion Yogi was requested to be the bridge. The feelings may have belonged to Mataal but it was Yogi who brought them alive with his words. Words that wreaked havoc in the hearts of two hormone-driven teenagers. Like me, playing cupid between girls and boys in my class, and beyond, it was Yogi who played cupid between Mataal and Sanket Tudu.
The epistolary love stories in my hometown had equally intriguing sequels. Raksha Bandhan fell exactly six months after Valentine’s Day. After a six-month lull, barring Holi festivities, full of bhang pakoras and bhaang thandai, my sleepy and dusty coal-mining town in rural Madhya Pradesh suddenly becomes abuzz with activity. Girls went around buying rakhis for their brothers and ‘would-be’ brothers, while boys went around buying chocolates, cards, and whatever fancy items my little town had to offer, for their own sisters, or ‘would-be’ sisters. Even Valentine’s Day didn’t see as much fervor as Raksha Bandhan did. It was obvious, even to the unexperienced eye, that when a Valentine’s Day proposal went kaput in February, because an eager party’s love wasn’t reciprocated, the couple in question, found harbor in Raksha Bandhan. For hormone-driven teenagers, a sacred thread, or a red rose, both meant all the same. Boys’ whose proposals were rejected in the month of February, in August, dragged themselves to the doorsteps of girls’ they had proposed. Only to be tied on their wrists, the biggest and most colorful rakhi, by the girl of their dreams, complete with a big red tika sprinkled with rice, on their sweaty foreheads. The charade ended with deep fried gulab jamuns, and kaju katlis shoved into their unwilling mouths. The boys in turn, would give those large Cadbury chocolate bars that were meant for their Valentine’s Day dates to their now ‘rakhi-sisters’. The ‘rakhi-brothers’ weren’t even invited to stay back for lunch, for lunch was meant for the girls’ ‘real’ brothers. The ‘rakhi-brothers’ would all trudge back home in their bicycles, a mix of love, pride, and confusion smeared on their pimple-ridden faces. The Valentine’s Day letters, that they had painstakingly written, with my ‘help’, on fragrant papers, lay crumpled behind their cupboard walls, to be extricated and refurbished the following year. For, a new subject, perhaps!
My birthday falls in September, right after Raksha Bandhan. This birthday, I was quite sad. I had turned 16. Unlike other years, no celebration was planned, not even a cake. Board exams were due in six months, and one birthday party, threatened to throw our entire year’s learning off gear! Seeing the look of fear and uncertainty in my parent’s face, I had only insisted that there be no celebration. Not even a cake, which in my small town was also a big deal. Because there was only one bakery that baked cakes, and that too only took advance orders. Nobody baked cakes at home, not my mother. So, no cakes for me!
After returning from school, and a hasty lunch, I went to my bedroom and started reading Pride & Prejudice, yet again while sobbing silently. I still don’t know why I was crying, was it because there was no birthday party, or was it just hormones. But that afternoon, around 4 ‘o clock I heard the metallic clang of our gate. Someone had either entered our row house or had left. But nobody came or left at that hour! My father was still taking his afternoon siesta, and would leave for his office again, only at 5 ‘o clock. I scurried downstairs, hoping to nab the culprit. I opened the front door and stepped into what felt like a wad of papers. Looking down, I saw that I had stepped on a bulging red envelope. I bent down and picked up the envelope. My name was written in beautiful black cursive across the front of the envelope. I hid the envelope under my dress and ran upstairs to my room. Only after I had secured the door, did I muster courage to open it. There was a Cadbury bar inside, and one of those musical birthday cards that played the ‘happy birthday’ tune. The card had a bouquet of red roses printed on the front. A folded sheet of paper popped out when I opened the card. I unfolded it only to discover that it was a letter. But it wasn’t really a letter. It contained only one sentence, ‘Dearest Jhanavee, ‘Wishing you a very happy 16th birthday.’ No name, no signature, no nothing! To this day, I don’t know if the mystery card giver was a girl or a boy. I am guessing it was a boy, because we received several blank calls at our home phone, the subsequent days.
I received love letters in school and then later in college. They were incredible but fraught with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Reading them tossed away whatever love I had for them out of the window.. I would not date someone who couldn’t write a decent love letter. I came to be known as the literary snob who would turn her back on romantic gestures by well-meaning but grammatically challenged boys. When I was in college, a boy from my tuition class attempted to give me a massive bouquet of red roses. I refused to accept it because he had not taken any effort to write a note or even a card that would accompany the flowers. In my Jane Austen mind, a proposal had to be accompanied by a well-intonated letter like the one Darcy wrote to Elizabeth Bennet. While I rejected my suitor, my hostel mates churned out new boyfriends every week.
There’s one story that my mother told me recently. One of my aunts, would write love letters on behalf of their house help who though unlettered had a massively romantic streak in him. He was in love with a girl from his village. But since he was living and working in a different town, he did not know how to make his feelings known to her. My aunt who was a teenager then was brimming with romantic ideas from all the Shakespearean literature that she had devoured over the years. . Her notion of romantic love became a boon for their house help. A couple of evocative letters and the girl of his dreams fell head over heels in love with him. The girl was also unlettered and had been using a ghost writer to reply to his letters, she was none other than the daughter of the headmaster of her village school at whose house she worked. The letter chain had a happy ending. The girlfriend later became his wife. So deeply they were in love with the author of the letters. Now I know, why writing letters for others, comes so easy to me. It runs in the family!
As someone who works in a corporate house, I can easily compose an official letter, even if someone wakes me up from a slumber. I am often asked by friends and family to write their year-end review emails, cover letters for their dream jobs or the occasional complaint letter to the customer service for poor services administered. Sometimes letters they would send to their bosses requesting a promotion or a higher bonus.
My most challenging request as a letter writer though came recently from a friend’s five-year old daughter. She wanted me to help her compose a letter that she wanted to give to her best friend, before he went away to his grandparents for summer vacations. When I asked her what she wanted me to write she said “write anything that says how much I love him and how much I will miss him.”
But to this date, I have not received a heartfelt love letter. Is anyone willing?
Jhanavee is an environment research analyst. She is the vice president at one of the largest financial institutions of the world.. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and is passionate about cooking vegetarian food. She also enjoys travelling and loves to explore different cuisines from around the world.. Japanese sushi being a recent favourite…
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