The memoirs of Habib Tanvir

How much is a life worth? You are born, you die, and it’s all over. Some people remember you, perhaps for one generation, perhaps for two, but then it is all over indeed. Yet, while we are alive, life feels like it matters so much. Wading through the perplexities of these two strands of thought, one reads through Habib Tanvir’s autobiography. Habib Tanvir – one of the most acclaimed theatre persons in India – died five years ago while working on this final work but breathed his last before it was completed. Hence, the narrative ends when Habib is about 30 years old, although by then, it has flown into the future and come back again to his childhood and youth many times.

The book, translated from the Urdu by Mahmood Farooqui was a treat to read. Habib’s childhood is described in great detail – all the characters remembered not so much realistically but for their special, at times grotesque, qualities, as a child may remember them. The uncle who carried a gun, the aunt who was always chewing paan, the deeply religious, simpleton father whose accent betrayed his Pathan roots although he lived and raised a family in central India, the teenage neighbour who would tantalisingly offer an early version of sex education. It is a life defined by the relationships Habib formed as a child and later in life, with his distinct ease and his flair for the spoken and written word. We learn about the life of a charming, intelligent, and profoundly perceptive young man and his friends and girlfriends. A large proportion of the appeal of the book lies in repeatedly, again and again, bringing home the point that our lives are defined and given meaning by the people we meet, the relationships we form and the memories we sustain when the relationships are no longer.

Also deeply evocative are Habib’s descriptions of the Indian art world in the 1940s and 50s, especially seen through the Leftist IPTA – Indian People’s Theatre Association. We see Habib meeting, working with, learning from and struggling for a better world with immensely talented actors, directors, singers, poets, writers. We can see that Habib himself is most obviously one of the best of them. There are poetry recitations that last all night, theatre rehearsals that raise passions so high that the legendary Balraj Sahni walks to the stage and slaps Habib, love affairs with women who cannot fail to seduce but also cannot fail to go away. Most of all, there is a great effulgence of artistic talent that expresses the best in the human heart.

It was a life lived intensely, with a lot of love, not without its share of suffering, and more than anything else, with an intensely passionate search for one’s own style of expression in poetry and in theatre. Habib Tanvir is now dead, and perhaps will be forgotten in a few decades, but the very intensity and expressiveness of the life he lived seem to negate that fact.

habib tanvir

~ by tdcatss on July 11, 2014.

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