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


Jill MacDonald 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.

Keywords: theatre Habib Tanvir Jill Macdonald