The Streets of Desire

Old Delhi’s subversive love-letter manuals

01 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 various 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,

The scenario here, of a furtive love between two neighbours, recalls the plot of the classic Bollywood film Padosan. The couplet in the middle—dafan ho gaye arman, kadmon tale tere/ rooh lipti rahegi meri, badan se tere—seems straight out of a shayari by an aspiring Ghalib. The paragraph after it refers to two Bollywood stars. In three paragraphs, “high” and “low” culture are combined to produce a new language of desire. Much like Hindi films have provided generations of Indians with a fantasy world through which they imagine how to fall in love, these works are also, as the literary scholar Francesca Orsini writes, “an archive of ideas and stories about passionate love.”

In her 2009 book Print and Pleasure: Popular Literature and Entertaining Fictions in Colonial North India, Orsini argues that we need to expand our narrow notions of literature to appreciate the wide range of fiction that was being produced and consumed in India in the years before Independence. Then, just as today, works of literary fiction and highbrow social or political tracts formed only a sliver of the books that were printed and read. Publishers, in pursuing their commercial interests, nurtured a mixture of “high” and “low” sensibilities, and created more varied and hybrid popular tastes than most scholars of Hindi or Urdu today recognise. This, Orsini writes, is because they ignore the vast supply of chapbooks widely available and read across north India from the late 1800s on. Readers of Premchand or Ghalib also enjoyed qissas and nautankis, theatre scripts and horoscopes, compilations of advice on matters financial, theological and sexual, all published in chapbook form.

Orsini’s argument can be extended to the present. Current notions of what qualifies as literature also ignore much of what is actually popular, including many forms of books that are cheaply made and widely consumed, for practical advice and for entertainment, by large numbers of Indian readers. Among the plethora of such books available in markets such as Daryaganj, the love-letter manuals are some of the most important. They are entertaining and engaging reads, and, booksellers told me repeatedly, were in high demand for decades. Though they are now dying out, they deserve attention for what they can tell us of the times when they were produced.

IN ISHQ MEIN SHAHAR HONA, a collection of short love stories, the journalist and writer Ravish Kumar draws on his experiences as a young man in Delhi in the 1990s to give readers a sense of how, for his generation, Indian cities seemed specifically designed to prevent love affairs. The stories focus on lovers’ quests for privacy in a city that offers little or no private space. Without cell phones, private communication was difficult. Social and familial surveillance were constants, especially for young women. In this milieu, letters were almost the only means for expressing romantic interest, and love-letter manuals were a vital source of romantic education.


The other books on love and sex that were available at the time now lie alongside the love-letter manuals at the Old Delhi book market: Mills and Boon romance novels, sex manuals with advice on everything from intercourse to erectile dysfunction, erotica in Hindi and English, and second-hand and pirated copies of the love poetry of John Donne and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The love-letter manuals—I found ones in both Hindi and English, but the Hindi volumes seem more numerous—set themselves apart from all of these. They offer direct, practical advice on romantic affairs. And, almost universally, they are not pornographic, and warn against open eroticism in courtship.

“Write a love letter only to the person you are sure you like and could be your life partner,” the author of Prem Patra advises. “You must know them. You must make sure not to use improper statements, rubbish poetry and sex-related words. This is not considered proper vis-à-vis letter-writing. Do not write bad things in the letter, even if you have had a physical relationship. Always be aware of the decorum of language.”

Prem Patra begins with a series of letters, likely to have been exchanged between two classmates, that are meant to show how to start an affair. The initial letters only mention some details regarding an exchange of notes between the two. From there the correspondence burgeons alongside the romance.

There are elaborate introductions that interpret the idea and the known forms of love through didactic meditations, and advise readers on appropriate, ethical and proven ways for approaching one’s beloved. Both Manbhavan Prem Patra and Prem Patra pose the question “prem kya hai?”—what is love?—with utmost seriousness, and attend to it rather intricately. While love is characterised as a spontaneous act (swabhavik kriya), these pocket books also insist on providing instructions and know-how.

Both Manbhavan Prem Patra and Prem Patra warn against “avaidh sambandh,” or “illicit bonds”:

shuru mein toh bada hi achha lagta hai, par bad mein… avaidh sambandh ho bhi jayein toh zyada badhava na dein. Kadam pichhe hata kar prayaschit kar lein. In sambandhon ke prem-patra bhayanak praman de sakte hain.

(It might feel quite good in the beginning, but later… even if such illicit bonds materialise, then you must not advance them. Take a step back and repent. The letters exchanged in these relationships could bear horrifying results.)

But such portents of doom are like the warnings on packets of cigarettes. They rarely dissuade the user. The letters reproduce many of the risqué tropes common in Hindi and Urdu literature, such as the pairing of a dewar and a bhabhi—an unmarried young man and his older brother’s wife—or of a worn-out old man and a lustful young wife. Correspondence between such pairs is among the most common in the manuals I found.

In a “Love Letter from a 48-year-old husband to his 20-year-old–wife,” published in Manbhavan Prem Patra, one Ramnath Yadav chides his dear Shashi, “Bahut pyas hai tumhari. Main to thak jata hoon. Itni chhatpatahat theek nahin. Kam se kam kuch to maryada rakho” (You are too lustful. It really tires me out. It’s not okay to be so restless. You should maintain some dignity, at least). Yadav then demands an account of Rs 600 he had sent earlier, and gives instructions on caring for the family elders, clearing the milkman’s account and being careful when giving clothes to the washerman.

The letter is followed by a note from the manual’s author: “Such dry letters are a result of unmatched relationships. If, fortunately or unfortunately, one ends up in an unmatched relationship, one must still try to keep love flourishing.”

There are many such letters in these manuals that barely qualify as instructive “samples.” They teach nothing, but are very amusing. There are missives from a widow to her best friend’s husband, from a “rich and highly educated woman to an ordinary soldier in the army,” from a young man to a European waitress. Needless to say, especially in the decades when the manuals were most popular, the possibility of a young north Indian encountering a European waitress would have been slim. It is not difficult to imagine, then, that much of what these books lay out is a series of love stories, to be enjoyed rather than acted upon.

The letter-writing manuals are part of a larger twentieth-century north Indian literary tradition where the interplay between fantasy and reality, advice and entertainment is never straightforward. Francesca Orsini, in a chapter titled “Love Letters” in the edited volume Love in South Asia, notes that the first Indian love-letter-writing manuals appeared as chapbooks in the early 1900s, in Urdu, at around the same time as the “social romance” novel emerged in Hindi literary fiction. Many of these novels were set in cities such as Calcutta, where men and women were living away from their families for the first time, often in single-sex hostels. But the city offered little chance for casual interaction between them, as most spaces were segregated by sex or under strict social surveillance. Thus they required a new method of communicating love: love letters. Orsini notes that many of these novels were epistolary—that is, with stories presented through a series of love letters, much as you would find in the manuals.

The Urdu love-letter manuals emphasised the literary qualities of letter writing. They instructed readers on the use of metaphor and simile, and gave clear instructions on how to write a letter, since they were addressing an audience of readers who had mostly never written anything before. At the time, munshis and professional letter-writers performed most official writing functions. The exigencies of love turned many readers into writers for the first time.

LOVE LETTERS FEATURE IN MANY WORKS of modernist Hindi fiction. The authors of these, however, have often mocked the pretensions of love-letter writers, and the works which inspire them. Shrilal Shukla’s classic satirical novel Raag Darbari, for instance, includes a character who writes this love letter:

O sajna, bedardi baalma, tumko mera man yaad karta hai … tumhein kya pata ki tum hi mere mandir, tumhi meri pooja, tum hi devta ho, tum hi devta ho.

(Gone, my sweetheart, my cruel beloved, I miss you so … You do know that you are my temple, you are my worship, you are my God, you are my God.)

All the lines in the letter are borrowed from Hindi film songs. The letter writer in the novel is everything that a literary writer such as Shukla is not: she copies instead of producing original thought, she relies wholly on cliches. What distinguishes Shukla from a mere reader is that the author creates something new, while the reader rehashes others’ creations.

More recent, postmodern understandings of literary texts have a different view, seeing them not so much as completely original works, but as products of pastiche or bricolage, assembled from prior things. The author, then, is a reader and a combiner. Like post-modern critiques of modernist literature, the love-letter manuals challenge the basic barriers that exist between author and reader, and between what is a creation and what is copying.

Prem Patra, like all the manuals I found, has a sense of coherence and organisation that suggests the presence of a single mind behind the work. Yet it names no author. “There is no author as such,” DA Sharma of Pawan Pocket Books, the manual’s publisher, told me. “We compile by borrowing material from here and there. We could not have written the entire book on our own.”

A manual titled Love Letters, published by Ramesh Publishing House, names one Abul Hashem as its author. The same person has also “authored” such titles as General English (with multiple-choice practice questions), MBA Entrance Examinations Guide (“Popular Master Guide,” says the subtitle) and Interview Manual: Interview Techniques & Models. My repeated phone calls to the publisher to trace this prolific author only led me in circles. No one could provide any information about him, or proof that he even exists. The names of many of the manuals’ authors, such as Abul Hashem, are generic to the point of being untraceable.

The borrowing of style and content in the manuals is fairly obvious and unsurprising. Love Letter, a manual in English, has letters with titles such as “Wooing a girl,” “A heart-throbbing appeal to a cute dame,” “A prelude to courtship” and “Love combat,” and shows a clear familiarity with European literary traditions. It lists “Rashmi Singhla” as its author. Gagan Gupta of Manu Graphics, Love Letter’s publisher, informed me that the author could not be contacted any longer, since, he said, she is “from abroad.” He could tell me nothing about her, or the way in which the book was produced. “I don’t think that it will help you even if you contact the author,” he told me. “Nobody reads this manual. We have not printed it since 2009 or 2010.”

Many of the manuals contain “famous” love letters attributed to renowned political leaders, scientists, poets and novelists. Not all of these are authentic reproductions. Consider a pair of letters ostensibly written by the author Honore de Balzac to one Natasha, which can be found in several manuals. In these, Balzac is presented as a “Russi kathakar,” or Russian storyteller, who sees Natasha at a party. He is about to go up to introduce himself, but someone named Count Sakharov blocks his advances. He sends a letter through a trusted servant to let Natasha know of his love—“Please let [the servant] know if you do not approve of it. I will not demonstrate such foolhardiness in the future.”

Natasha writes back in admiration. Her father has gone to St Petersburg, she writes, so she can come out to meet him. The letter ends: “Promise me that you will not destroy my dreams. All that I have is yours.”

On the internet, one can easily find Balzac’s love letters to a Madam Hanska. But I could not find correspondence between Balzac and any Natasha in the writer’s collected letters. Moreover, Balzac was French, not Russian. The letters in the manuals seem to have been wrongly attributed, or just made up.

Prem Patra includes letters that it claims were exchanged between Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and one Jabina. I could not find these anywhere online either. Apart from declarations of love, these letters also contain details of the two meeting in actual locations, lending a strong sense of authenticity to what are almost certainly fictions.

A formal disclaimer in one of the manuals states that the publisher and author are not responsible for its contents:

All the characters in the given manual are fictitious. They are included at the writer’s discretion. Anyone’s name corresponding to the ones in the letter is purely coincidental, and not the responsibility of either the publisher or the writer.

THE WORLD'S FIRST LOVE-LETTER manuals emerged as early as in the seventeenth century, in France. They were part of a growing chapbook industry that developed in Europe and North America between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, helped by easy access to printing presses. The chapbooks covered a wide range of subjects—comedy, adventure, horoscopes, palmistry, politics, religion and love. The historian Roger Chartier, writing about early French love-letter manuals, has noted that most of the letters in them presented situations and language that the ordinary readers who bought chapbooks could never conceivably encounter in real life. For instance, some letters described, in aristocratic French, the etiquette required between nobles engaged in an affair. Chartier concludes that these letters were not meant to provide practical advice. They were read as fictions, and catered to a need for entertainment among a rising number of literate people.

In India, chapbooks took root in the mid nineteenth century, under colonial rule. These freely mixed practical advice with fiction, and often had salacious content produced at the behest of publishers by authors who were largely anonymous. The Urdu scholar Frances Pritchett describes them as a form of ephemeral literature, published on cheap paper, to be enjoyed and discarded. Here, as elsewhere, chapbooks were targeted at a growing population of readers, and they became a medium for the transformation of oral culture—popular songs, myths, folk tales and more—into written literature for the first time.


Literary critics long derided chapbooks as trash. But starting in the 1970s, in the West, cultural historians began to pay attention to them, and to collect and archive them as documents of popular culture and consciousness. This led to scholarly interest in chapbooks from colonial India too, as artefacts of a kind of subaltern consciousness that was absent from highbrow literature. Colonial-era Indian chapbooks—in Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Bengali and other languages—are now objects of serious study in India and abroad, and can be found in collections at the British Museum, the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Even the booksellers in Daryaganj know they are collectibles and price them accordingly. But pocket books—today’s versions of chapbooks—are rarely the subjects of serious study or seen as having any value beyond their sticker price.

Today, India’s growing base of readers buys and reads huge numbers of books—pocket books among them—that are not considered literary, while literary scholarship and archiving are focussed on a small number of books of “serious” nonfiction or “literary” fiction.

Pocket books on astrology, moneymaking, horoscopes, famous scandals, and myriad other topics, continue to find buyers in Daryaganj. But the love-letter manuals have almost disappeared. Nobody writes love letters these days, booksellers told me. The manuals are windows into a world before WhatsApp and Facebook, smart phones and OYO rooms, when spaces for lovers were few and ways of communicating even fewer. Such books are no longer required by lovers as the barriers that made them necessary have begun to come down.

We have new ways of communicating love and romantic interest, and our intimate messages are no longer expected to show the sincerity and decorum they once did. There is no more use for moral and ethical guidelines on the art of seduction. If the manuals are an archive of our shared notions and narratives of passion, as Orsini writes, their decline then also marks the death of a certain poetics of love. Now, you swipe left or right, and that is that.