Love Letters for Sale


Love Letters for Sale

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

Valentine’s Day is here. Parul can finally flex her wrists and give her fingers a break. The past two weeks have been frenetic. All work, no chill, only non-stop writing. But today, as helium balloons and all things heart-shaped fly off the shelves, Parul can take it easy.

Parul is not a PR executive spamming inboxes with mushy releases nor a journalist on a deadline. Her job is to fix lonely hearts or lovelorn ones, through beautifully handwritten letters.

A middle-aged woman has just expressed a desire to tell her husband how she felt when she first met him. So Parul inserts the popular ’90s Salman Khan song set in a skating rink, “Tumse jo dekhte hi pyar hua, zindagi mein pehli baar hua”. Despite the corniness, the woman is thrilled.

Another request comes in from a patient who learnt about The Indian Handwritten Letter Company – where Parul works as a part-time love-letter drafter – while browsing the Hindi magazine, Vanita, in her hospital bed. She has sent them a quick email from her phone and wants a romantic dinner invite addressed to her husband. The date is in the hospital by her bedside, it says, and not the restaurant where they celebrate Valentine’s Day every year.

For the most part, Parul’s “clients” remain complete strangers, who send her the essence of their feelings in bullet points. She takes over the raw material, injects it with a heavy dose of mush and memories, and turns them into a beautiful billet doux. In the run-up to this Valentine’s Day, she has written 150 such letters, in Hindi, English, and Hinglish. Some of them are replete with corny shaayri and Hindi songs.

Sometimes there aren’t even bullet points to work with. A long-distance relationship, Parul tells me, was crumbling because the couple couldn’t fix a common time slot to talk. The guy’s new job needed him to serve night shifts. So Parul called the heartbroken man and wrote a two-pager, reminding the girlfriend how, in their six-year relationship, they had crossed many hurdles, from parents’ disapproval to misunderstandings created by friends. This, she wrote, was a small roadblock, and this too would pass. Parul doesn’t know if they broke up or not, but she remembers how the man was so grateful to her for expressing his feelings so beautifully.

Before writing a letter, Parul first calls the client to understand if it’s an apology, confession or a random outburst of love. She takes note of the tiny details – how the person talks, with clarity or confusion? If the letter is in Hindi, then does he or she use the expression tu, tum or aap? These details, says Parul, help her draft a letter that doesn’t raise the receiver’s suspicion.

Writing on behalf of a man is very different than writing for a woman, she tells me. Girls are all about depth. Boys like to stay on the surface.

Inarticulate lovers from across the country – from metros such as Bangalore and Delhi to Tier-2 cities such as Coimbatore, Patna, Jalandhar, and Agra – have been submitting requests to The Indian Handwritten Letter Company. The Bangalore start-up has a separate team of writers who actually write the letter (copying the client-approved draft) and post it in a classic brown envelope. All for ₹99 only.

Parul is a present-day Theodore Twombly, the lead character from Spike Jonze’s Her. But unlike her cinematic counterpart, Parul isn’t delusional or lonely. She is a senior content editor at a Bangalore MNC who loves reading. Her weekends are spent at pubs and coffee shops and she is as millennial as they come – save for the fact that she writes love letters. And this isn’t even her day job.

When I ask her why she writes letters, she retorts with a “Why not?” She loves the idea of a handwritten note and used to write them on behalf of her friends. The start-up was a natural fit for someone who likes playing cupid with verbose arrows. Plus, this writing is poles apart from the jargon-laden corporate writing she does at work.

Then there is the rush of donning different roles and gleaning insights into human romance. Writing on behalf of a man is very different than writing for a woman, she tells me. Girls are all about depth. Boys like to stay on the surface. Guys are precise, girls tend to wonder around. Girls want to say ten things before “I love you”. Guys begin with “I love you”. Her own love life has benefited greatly from these observations. Seeing how distraught a woman or man can be in love after petty arguments, she has learned one thing: to let go.

In the age of left and right swipes, where insta-love is presented to a “user” on a menu card, a handwritten missive is a bit of an anomaly. It is as outmoded as the idea of seeking someone’s help in expressing how you feel – an indication that you want to spend time and effort in nurturing a relationship.

This whole idea of an old-fashioned romance is what keeps Parul going – even when she has to skip lunch and tea breaks or when a request pours in at 3 am. Every letter she writes brings out the “dakiya daak laya wala” feeling in her.

Once a client approves Parul’s draft, the company emails the final draft to another writer, the calligrapher and the last-mile delivery person rolled into one. Priyanka Kamidi is one such writer. Her job is to duplicate the draft, down to the last comma and full stop, in her beautiful, cursive handwriting on a sheet decorated with balloons and hearts. An account manager at a digital marketing firm in Mumbai, like Parul, even 25-year-old Priyanka is not in it for the money.

Coming from a family in Vishakhapatnam “that doesn’t hug a lot”, Priyanka picked up the letter-writing habit at an early age from her mother. Among her purse essentials, is a gel pen, a sheet of paper, a few postage stamps. And a brown envelope, Priyanka adds, laughing between sips of her caramel coffee, as we chat in a coffee shop.

On her way to work, Priyanka stops at the post office opposite Santa Cruz station at least thrice a week. The staff there recognises her now, but they are perplexed by her frequent visits. I think they wonder, says Priyanka, why a young woman with a smartphone who possibly has access to Facebook, WhatsApp, and what not, is sending so many letters. All of them under different names to different people.