A former lover differs with Habib Tanvir’s telling of their relationship

01 September 2014
Courtesy Jill MacDonald
Courtesy Jill MacDonald

Habib Tanvir began writing his memoirs in 2004, at the age of 81. They span 31 years, concluding in 1954 when Tanvir moved to Delhi permanently. In addition to talking about the wealth of characters he came in contact with in that period, his poetry and his political and gustatory inclinations, his notes contain remembrances of the love he shared with the different women that came into his life. One of these women was the theatre director Moneeka Misra, who eventually became his wife and the mother of their daughter Nageen. However, another woman who receives almost passing mention in the memoirs, was perhaps just as significant. This was Jill MacDonald, whom Tanvir simply describes as someone “who was going to come to India with my child in her womb,” and who, in 1964, became the mother of Tanvir’s older child, Anna.

Tanvir’s memoirs were written in Hindustani, and were published in 2013 in an English translation by Mahmood Farooqi. When the book came to MacDonald’s attention, she was dismayed at his account of the close relationship they had shared. She collected the letters they had sent each other in the nine years that their relationship had lasted and composed her own brief memoir, which we are publishing today on the occasion of his birth anniversary.


Habib Tanvir and Jill MacDonald’s story begins in September of 1955 when they lodged at the same guest house in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival. She was 16 at the time, and he was 32. “There was an instant rapport between us … an intensity that continued for the rest of the week,” she says in her memoir.

When the festival was over, they spent a significant amount of time together in London and often attended the theatre. But then, after some months together, MacDonald was sad to report that Tanvir’s dream to experience theatre all across Europe took shape, and he set off on his travels in June 1956. “There followed more than two years of Habib being away, sending letters from various countries; all sorts of news arrived, contained in wonderful looking envelopes decorated with ever more exotic stamps.”

Serena Peck is assistant web editor at The Caravan.