reviews and essays Literature

The Streets of Desire

Old Delhi’s subversive love-letter manuals

By KANUPRIYA DHINGRA | 1 November 2017

ON SUNDAY MORNINGS, in Old Delhi, the pavements of the neighbourhood of Daryaganj and the thoroughfare of Nai Sarak are transformed into one of the largest book markets in India. All kinds of books eventually reach the footpath stalls here. I once found an out-of-print copy of Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977, for a pittance amid piles of test-preparation books.

Most of the books here arrive in bulk, having been discarded by their owners and lugged away by kabadiwalas. Pocket books, however, have the footpaths as their principal address. Most are published and sold locally, and are rarely found in bookshops. The Sunday market in Old Delhi can be seen as a footpath archive of the Indian pocket-book industry.

These cheap, colourful books have long served as guides on everything from cooking to medicine, astrology to sex. It was among them that I first found a copy of Prem Patra: Love Letters, a volume dedicated to the art of love-letter writing.

The blurb on its rear cover read: “Mann mein meethi meethi gudgudiyan uthati hain, panne par panne fatte jate hain par prem patra nahin likha jata” (Our mind is tickled by sweet desires, and pages and pages keep getting torn, and yet no love letter gets written). Inside were sample letters for a wide range of possible amorous situations, along with practical advice on how to write letters to potential lovers. I found other similar books too, with their contents categorised by variou romantic situations in which one might find oneself, with sample letters for each. In one book, the table of contents listed “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,” and more along these lines. The titles alone were poignant, full of yearning, and frequently ridiculous.

The letters themselves often employed elaborate forms of address. In a manual titled Manbhavan Patra, I found letters addressed to Priyatame and Praneshwari—Beloved and My Love—and also to “mere prem-path ke chiraag Jijaji”—the fire along my love path, Brother-in-law—and my favourite, “mere Cupid, mere prem devta”—my Cupid, my love god.

The manuals also contained sample letters attributed to famous personalities, as well as instructive essays on love. But the books were more than just instruction manuals. They could just as well be read not for instruction but for pleasure. Much like Hindi films, which incorporate classical Urdu poetry and Hindu mythology and digest these genres to create something new, these manuals too drew on a wide variety of sources—from Ghalib, Shakespeare, Balzac and even Bollywood—and combined them in a form all their own.

Take this example, from Prem Patra:

By what name should I address you, I don’t know. I saw you on your terrace when you were putting your clothes up to dry and I kept staring at you—such beauty and grace that I couldn’t take my eyes off you! I drank up the beauty that you carry till the time that you left the terrace. By then, my condition was such that—
All my aspirations have been buried under your feet
My soul will remain attached to your form

When I couldn’t control myself, I had to write a letter. I think you are the goddess of the temple that is my heart, for whom I have waited since eternity. There are many women of your age in our neighbourhood—each thinks of herself as a Madhuri Dixit or another Kajol. But I never gave my heart to them. I have rested all my hopes on getting a reply to this letter.

I am sending my heart with this mail. Keep it by your heart, if you will; or break it and throw it away.

Wishful of your sight,

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Kanupriya Dhingra is a research scholar at the department of English, University of Delhi. Her research interests include the history of books and South Asian print cultures


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