Habib Tanvir's former lover opens up on the story of a turbulent love affair

Updated: Nov 21, 2016, 16:11 IST | Jane Borges

Famed theatre activist Habib Tanvir’s former lover shares the story of a turbulent love affair that was immortalised through letters 

Habib first met his grandson Mukti in 1995, during a visit to Jill’s home in Gloucestershire. Mukti was around three years old then.
Habib first met his grandson Mukti in 1995, during a visit to Jill’s home in Gloucestershire. Mukti was around three years old then. 

Who is Jill MacDonald? And, what was the relationship she shared with renowned playwright and theatre director Habib Tanvir? Seven years ago in June 2009, nearly 54 years after Jill first met the young, enchanting Habib at the Edinburgh Festival in 1955, these questions unexpectedly came to occupy her for the very first time.

Devonshire-based Jill was still coming to terms with the demise of Habib, the father of her eldest daughter Anna, when spurious gossip trickled in about the parentage of her child. “Obituaries were published in various newspapers, hinting that Habib had another family in England, possibly another daughter with a French actress he had met briefly in Paris. That was too much,” 77-year-old Jill recalls.

Provoked by how things were playing out and moved by the stirring memory of a buried romance, Jill turned to her old writing case after many years. Inside it was a sheaf of crumpled, yellowed papers.

“I found that Habib’s demise caused me to ponder very deeply about what we had meant to each other, and as a result I wanted to reread his letters to me,” she says in an email interview. “But, as I sorted them out, I found it too difficult to read them alone, especially knowing that he was no longer there.”

Habib Tanvir and Jill MacDonald got acquainted at the Edinburgh festival in 1955. Jill was 17 years old then, while Habib was 32. The meeting set the stage for a whirlwind romance

Habib Tanvir and Jill MacDonald got acquainted at the Edinburgh festival in 1955. Jill was 17 years old then, while Habib was 32. The meeting set the stage for a whirlwind romance

Incidentally, Anna’s son Mukti, Habib’s grandchild, was living at her home then. “I suggested we read them together, which he quite happily agreed to, asking me lots of questions along the way,” Jill remembers. She later passed on the letters to her daughter, something she admits to have deliberately never done before. “Parents don’t always want to share details of their private affairs with their offspring, but at this point it seemed a very positive move that Anna should know more about hers,” says Jill. Her daughter later coaxed her to get them published.

That’s how A Story for Mukti (HarperCollins India), which released last month, took shape.

The book is a compilation of letters Habib sent to Jill — her letters to him have been lost — after he first laid his eyes on the 17-year-old teenager. Habib, then 32, was nearly twice her age. Remembering that moment with vivid detail, she says, “I’m not sure that I believe in love at first sight, because I can’t see how you can really love someone if you don’t know them. What I did feel in the very first instance of meeting Habib was a huge sense of recognition. He was familiar, comfortable and wonderful to have come across.”

“There were more obvious things about him that I took to at once – his warm smile, the slightly husky, musical voice. But, this sense of absolute recognition was something I had not experienced before and it continued throughout knowing him.”

A year later, he started travelling across Europe to explore and experience its theatre. Despite the occasional brief meetings that followed, their romance blossomed through letters. These exchanges and meetings would continue even after Habib moved to Delhi and got married, while keeping Jill in the dark. But, in 1964, when Habib learnt that Jill was having his baby, he took a step back. “My mother was outraged and angry with Habib for his swift departure. She felt I had been abandoned,” Jill writes in the book.

In more ways than one, it was true. “After Anna was born Habib was silent for two years. It is always difficult when someone simply disappears without explanation. There remains a question mark, which was indeed a heavy burden to bear,” she says.

The silence, she recalls, caused a huge wedge in their relationship. “There was always affection and I was always glad to see him, but the trust had gone, and without that precious commodity it wasn’t possible to be wholehearted,” says Jill.

Meanwhile, Jill found love in a Scottish sailor, whom she met during one of her journeys to India. Habib did eventually meet his daughter Anna nine years later, in 1973 and would continue to stay in touch with the family, visiting them until just before his death. “Surprisingly perhaps, there was still that sense of recognition that I have described. He was fairly burdened with guilt in later life, for allowing himself to have been so divided, and letting people, who loved him down,” she says.

Jill pins it down to the artiste inside him. “I sometimes felt that theatre was more real to him than life. Perhaps, it was this aspect of his character that led Habib into making mistakes in his personal life, which caused confusion and quite a lot of anguish and suffering to others,” she says, adding, “Unlike theatre, there were no curtains in life to end the scenes, only consequences.”

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