“My Sweetest Thoughts Have Been With You”: Habib Tanvir’s Letters to Jill MacDonald

By Jill MacDonald | 28 October 2016

In June 1958, the renowned theatre activist Habib Tanvir had just moved to India after spending over two years travelling around Europe, exploring different forms of theatre. Before he began his trip, he met Jill MacDonald, a young English teenager, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1955. Tanvir and MacDonald began a long exchange of letters that continued when he moved back to India. The couple met briefly while he was in Europe but the nature of their next few meetings, which occurred in India, is contested. In his memoirs, which were published in 2013, Tanvir mentions MacDonald almost in passing—he describes her once as a young woman who “was going to come to India with my child in her womb,” and later, as the mother of their child, Anna, born in 1964. But MacDonald’s account of their relationship differs significantly. “It is important to explain that the book does not read like a consciously crafted memoir,” she wrote in a 2014 piece published on Vantage, The Caravan. “It is put together as a series of vignettes describing memorable individuals and events, interlaced with thoughts on the progress of theatre and recollections of love affairs, all without chronological order. As such, some of the accounts tend to be incomplete and at least one, even though short, is decidedly inaccurate.” MacDonald followed her assertion with a brief account of her relationship with Tanvir.

In A Story for Mukti, published by HarperCollins India, MacDonald has compiled the letters Tanvir sent her, adding to them her own narration of their story. The narrated story is addressed to Mukti, Anna’s oldest son and grandson to MacDonald and Tanvir. In the following excerpt, MacDonald reproduces the letters Tanvir sent to her soon after he moved back to India. She recounts that she missed him immensely, and, fearing that Tanvir was lonely and upset, she planned to visit him. At the time, Tanvir had just started a company, Naya Theatre, which he would run for nearly five decades. MacDonald eventually cancelled her first visit. Just before her second visit, in 1960, Tanvir would write to her to admit that he had been living with another woman, but that he awaited her visit “breathlessly.”

 

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c/o The Hindustani Theatre, House No. 22
Low cost Housing Exhibition, Mathura Road,
New Delhi 9.8.58

Dearest Jill,
I am sorry for keeping silent for so long. You have no idea how busy I was and in what a mess I am. Got 2 wires from my mother because I could not bring myself to write to her all this time. My luggage is lying at the docks in Bombay for nearly 2 months and since I did not even bother to contact my agents, I have to pay heavy demurrage charges. So I have sold my new German typewriter even before I could use it.

It is not so much production, with which I am busy, but re-organization of a theatre which is badly organized, to say the least. It is just work, work, work – all alone – and a lot of headache – and the prospects are dubious yet.

I am still looking for a house and a cook – life is unsettled – food in restaurants is bad and expensive – I am sharing life with another writer, his house and kitchen – for the time being.

My sterling is still lying at the India House London and they have threatened to make the payment to me here in rupees. I don’t want this. So I have to argue and fight with the cultural ministry here and eventually if they agree, give them Power of Attorney to transfer my funds to my London bank.

It is only then that I would be able to return your father’s fiver. I am so ashamed. No, I just can’t leave India for at least another 7 or 8 months, maybe more. If I succeed in building this theatre here in a very short time, which is a bit doubtful, I might be able to leave in April. Else I have to stick it out till I feel the theatre is strong enough to stand on its own legs.

Financially speaking, I am extremely poor. But that has never worried me, except an occasional feeling that it is high time I had a better life which funnily I feel I deserve. But perhaps you would like to spend some holidays in India some time.

I could try to save some money for that. Then I must plan my life better.

And start doing some other jobs as well – like radio and journalism. I might arrange some lucrative concerts for you when you come. Oh go on, Jill, what else can I write darling. I miss you despite much work. The lips have forgotten what it is like to kiss a girl. But every fibre throbs with past sensations sometimes. And the heart aches. How are you my sweet?

Love Habib

When I received this letter, hardly more cheerful than the last, I had already come to this conclusion: staying in Germany was not going to work out for me.

[…]

New Delhi 13.10.58

Gillette darling,
Sorry for silence. But often my sweetest thoughts have been with you.

That is whenever time permits it. That happens mostly at bed time. But sometimes, memories come crowding into an overworked brain even in the middle of intense activity. Yes, I am awfully busy and a bit lonesome. Not a single friend here either. But hardly time for friends. I hope my present experiment in theatre succeeds. It is a big experiment in music, dance and drama all at once, with a cast of 36 amateurs all untrained, and no one to assist me in a creative way. The show takes place on lst December.

I envy you being in Munich. I wish I was there with you. But you might not regret being here either specially at this time. The weather is just superb. The air is so crisp you could dig your teeth into it. It is like the best European day in Summer – South Europe I mean. If you can really come now, what is the hitch? If you want to come in February, do that. It would be cold weather then and still lovely. Summer alone is horrid in Delhi, but that is just over and a long way off now.

Future plans I am quite unable to make at the moment. I am getting about £23 per month and a room with kitchen and bathroom to live in. I find it very hard to live on this amount. I do not find time to do other work and earn some more. But if this experiment comes off at all, I might get more money from the theatre and also more time to do other work. I am not yet sure, however, whether I would stick to this particular organization. The situation might become clearer for me in a couple of months time.

I plan also to visit Europe either in April or June ’59. About this too I am not in a position to decide right now.

To add to all this confusion, my rehabilitation in my own country after a long absence is not yet complete. I keep remembering foreign climes in a nostalgic way and wanting to quit. Rehabilitation too needs more time, if it is to happen at all. I don’t like my environment as yet and really feel lonesome and a terrible need for a woman’s love.

But she is so far away. Now that I have written, don’t be angry with me any more and keep writing or ‘wrighting’ – as you would have it spelt – in spite of my occasional silence, which is never devoid of love for you. Thanks for the thought for my birthday and for tobacco. Hope Ravi Shankar brings it.

If you can come, for how long can you come?

I need to do a lot of other work and save money right from now, if I want to see you there next summer. Many many sweet sweet kisses,

Habib

I was still abroad at this point and it made me yet more determined not to stay stuck out on a limb. It was becoming clear to me that it seared my heart to leave Habib in India on his own for a long timeor anywhere else, come to think of it. I decided I should go back to England as soon as I could decently extricate myself, get myself into a bedsitter probably in London, and take up some useful training, which would enable me to earn a living. I knew my parents would support me in a move that appeared so sensible. The one that struck me as most obvious was that of a secretarial course. I had heard you could always get a job if you knew how to type and do shorthand, even if you were pretty bad at spelling, which I was. Moreover, it was what a lot of girls took up and it certainly seemed to stand them in good stead, so why not me? This is exactly what I did, and looking back, it turned out to be of the most useful decisions I ever made in my life, though it seemed a bit of a random choice at the time. My idea was to take up a job as soon as I was trained, save up money and go to India by road, there being much to see on the way. Luckily for me, computers weren’t around and there was nowhere near the present-day range of difficult equipment to master. Manual typewriters were all we had to learn touch-typing on, and we took dictation down in a notebook.

The course itself was very arduous, but focusing on the end result of being employable, I managed to get through it. The very first job I got was fascinating and seemed to be linked to my own interests, if a little remotely. I was taken on by Lady Pamela Hicks as her secretary in her very lavish flat in London, and was required to answer letters of condolence she had received on the death of her mother, Lady Pamela Mountbatten, the wife of the viceroy of India. While doing so, I was inspired to do some research of my own into the way of life of these people to whom I was typing letters, many of them eminent upholders of the British Raj. My readings undoubtedly provided me with a dramatically different picture of life in India from the description that Habib was sending me. Nevertheless, spurred on by all the varying images and so far undaunted, I carried on with my plans for a journey by road, equally enthusiastic about seeing the rest of the world on the way.

There were organisations that took you across the world by bus and truck and it all sounded very exciting, if hazardous. I loved the thought of such an adventurous journey, and went about organising a loan from Margareta who encouraged me and fully understood my desire to go. I exchanged letters with other members of the road trip being planned, who I began to know a little. They sounded wonderfully friendly and fearless, all of which I wrote about to Habib. I pored over maps, tracing this massive journey with my finger and imagining all the extraordinary countries I would pass through. At the same time, I wondered how many stomach upsets I might have to deal with, as I’d heard this was all part and parcel of life travelling around Asia.

Ages passed before I got a reply to my many lively descriptionsseven months in factand by that time I was quite sure he’d either found someone else to fall in love with, or had dwindled into a heap of paralysed misery. First I received a telegram from him, followed by a letter.

12.5.59
(Naya Theatre address on back of envelope)

Jill darling,
There is no woman. I am a celibate and keep thinking of you. You have a large heart and I expect you would forgive me again – but my silence really meant nothing. It was just one of those things. In fact, many weeks ago, I launched upon writing a very long letter to you, but it was left off in the middle and I had to abandon it eventually because of the cost – but I will complete it and send it some other time. I sent that telegram because I thought the last date of your application for the trip to India was pretty close and there was no time for a letter to get to you. Yes, it was expensive and I had to borrow money. I was horrified to imagine you in India mainly for me, and me in Europe, and both missing one another. Because Germany had asked me to produce the Indian classic in September, I was to take 3 months for the production and linger on for a month or so here and there. But now they write to me saying that they have ever so many important and unavoidable assignments and festivals, foreign visits and so on this year; so would I be willing to visit in February l960. That is awful, as far as your plans are concerned. Even for me, it is very unpleasant. Perhaps it is too late for you to try to come to India, though I wish you would still try and that you succeeded. Do, do let me know if it is possible.

I have left my job. Now I am looking for a living and for a house to live in. At the same time I have formed a new theatre group called the New Theatre and got a friend to lend me his garage for rehearsals and started rehearsing three of my own one-act plays.

Meanwhile, my mother is very ill and I must go home leaving this to others for a time, but I have not a penny. You hinted about my pounds some time ago. I think if I had them, I would certainly clear up my debts. But as things stand, your father is right. I don’t expect to pay him the fiver in another five years. You see for a long time, the Govt. of India did not transfer my money to my bank in London but insisted they would let me have the amount in rupees here in India.

They began to question whether any money was due to me at all, because they said if you had earned during your stay in Europe, then that amount must be deducted from my scholarship. Anyhow, I do not know how long this correspondence would go on and what the result would be. So you see darling I am not quite as rich, stingy and unscrupulous as I might appear. Conditions in India are terrible and I am forced to selling some of my things.

15.5.59 continued:
My experiment was successful and I think it has shown a definite new way in theatre. But at the moment I have received a personal setback. I have not the same facilities to carry on my experiment still further. The Hindustani Theatre set-up does not have the vision – while here in my own set-up I have all the freedom of artistic expression but no resources or very few. I have to collect donations for my amateur organization. I have collected about £40 so far but we need much more. It is difficult to draw talent for amateur work and much more difficult to get girls to act. It is difficult to do all this without a job and more difficult to find a job that leaves you enough time for theatre. There are many other nasty things but writing about them would be wasting your time and boring you. The artist class of New Delhi is a class of opportunists full of greed, egotism, selfishness, jealousy and destructive revenge-fulness. They are hand-maidens of a few rich women who dominate the cultural field of Delhi – social climbers who use theatre as a stepping stone for personal triumphs. The result is that I am thrown out on the street literally and my creation is virtually thrown to dogs. The irony is that you can’t do a damn about it. But you haven’t the interest or the energy for revenge. You secretly yearn for peace so as you begin work from scratch but even this peace is denied you. Then you want to retire to the Himalayas. Then is your demoralization complete though it is not certain if the world could really leave you alone even then. Thus more than half your life you are busy trying to defend yourself without cause, or reacting, reacting, reacting to all sorts of stuff and nonsense. You are lucky if in the midst of all this you can take yourself in hand again for a moment to realize that you are losing the purpose of life and that life is losing all its meaning for you. Suddenly then you think of the minimum function of life – the animal function – procreation – and it is hopeless indeed when you feel that you are not fulfilling even the vegetable purpose of life. You think of love and see it is nowhere around. You have neglected it as well and not availed of it. You write a depressing letter to a girl with a stout faith because she has not yet gone through so much. And strangely that girl’s faith appears able to nourish you and give you hope and strength again if you are not too far gone already. That girl is you. And I don’t think I am too far gone. Love

Habib

As a result of that telegram and the letter, my plans to come to India had to be entirely scrapped, and since they were in such an advanced state it came as a terrific shock. I was extremely deflated by yet another hitch in our arrangements, and I think I had no more ideas as to what I could do to bring comfort to Habib’s troubled existence – nor to my own, for that matter. I had wanted to reach him so badly and, yet again, muddles in timing had got in the way. I didn’t have the energy nor the means to start making plans again and couldn’t think what to write back to improve matters.

This is an extract from A Story for Mukti, by Jill MacDonald, published by HarperCollins India. 

Born into an Anglo-Irish family, Jill MacDonald was a classical singer, and then went to university in her late thirties to become an English teacher‎.

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