I normally mark the late Barbara (Bar) MacDonald’s birthday on 28 August with a blog. This year, on her 106th birthday, I shall write of a great achievement of her younger daughter Jill, which involved Jill’s daughter Anna and her son Mukti: three generations.
In 2016 Harper Collins published a book, A Story for Mukti, by Jill MacDonald. This is a series of letters written between 1955 and 1964 to Jill from her friend and lover, the legendary Indian theatrical pioneer and thespian, Habib Tanvir. (Sadly, her letters to him have not survived.) Habib was Anna’s father; he died in 2009. He is well-known in India as a playwright, theatre director, actor and poet. He founded the Naya Theatre in 1959.
As Anna explains in the foreword, she first read the letters as she sat on the plane to India in 2009, to attend a festival celebrating her father’s life. She had more than once tried to tidy away these flimsy letters which lived in her mother’s writing-case, and was now relieved that her mother had stopped her, for they brought her father alive for her. They also raised countless questions.
The family eventually persuaded Jill to publish the letters in a book which for her was both painful and rewarding. She was particularly close to her eldest grandson Mukti and liked the idea of making them a letter to him. The letters are reproduced with intervening explanation and messages to Mukti, written in an engaging, forthright manner. The foreword is by Mukti.
The relationship between Habib and Jill began in 1955 when they met at the Edinburgh Festival; Habib was 32 and Jill 16. Habib immediately began writing to Jill, from Bristol then London. In those days it was far more difficult than it is today for a young woman to travel, and Jill was stuck at a finishing school in Surrey. Habib left for the continent in 1956 and moved around incessantly, often living in poverty and being forced to sing in cafés to earn enough to support his writing and performing. He moved on to Russia before returning to India in 1958.
Habib knew Jill’s elder sister Carley first. Jill writes: ‘He particularly liked the way she scoffed, which she certainly did—and still does—with aplomb. If scoffing were an art he considered that Carley had mastered it particularly well.’ This amuses me because it is so true, and it reminds me of my time in Exeter when I lived with Jill, next door to Carley. I was a tenant of Jill’s from 1976 to 1983 at 26 Wonford Road (which I nicknamed The Jillery), a tall, Victorian, terraced house where guests, visitors and lodgers tumbled in and out and you never knew who was coming to dinner. Carley lived in number 24, a neater and more orderly house. I am so happy still to be in touch with both Jill and Carley.
One reads this book with a certain sense of frustration, longing for Habib and Jill to get together, but so often something occurred at the last minute and a plan was foiled. They did meet a few times during the nine years, and Jill saved up to visit Habib in India, which was not a success because he was so busy with his theatre work. Following one of his visits to London in 1963 Jill gave birth to his daughter Anna in 1964. After that they lost touch for a while but then regained contact in time for Anna to get to know her father, and for him to meet her children. Jill’s younger daughter, Vickie, was Anna’s step-sister, and the two girls grew up to be delightfully musical. Anna is now an accomplished professional musician.
The book ends with a thoughtful epilogue by Anna, explaining how she gradually got to know and understand her inscrutable father, as did her children: Mukti, Kim and Willoughby.
I strongly recommend this unusual and fascinating book. You can order it here. I know that Bar was proud of her talented family and this book, with its contributions from Anna and Mukti, would have made her even more so.