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There is one subject that has perplexed me—the concept of marriage. I have confronted the problem in different ways at different stages of my life. In 1942, when I was nineteen, a debate was held in our college on the subject ‘Marriage is a sacrament, not a contract’. I had to choose which side to support: should I assert that marriage was an eternal holy vow or a temporary contract, an understanding? Nineteen hundred and forty-two had brought a bagful of troubles for me. That was the year when I first heard Tarabai Nasik-waali sing, became besotted with her, and ended up losing my division. The same year I also visited my cousin Hifzul Kabir’s house during the summer vacation and went for a lion hunt with his friends, Nasiryar Jang and Iqbalyar Jang. Then I went off to Hyderabad with Kabir Bhaiyya and stayed with him at the haveli of Maharaja Kishen Pershad. Nasiryar and Iqbalyar also used to live there. Iqbal did some things there that reignited the marriage dilemma.

But first, the college debate. My friend and mentor Comrade Mushtaq, some ten or twelve years older than me, was then studying in the final year of master’s. To help me prepare for the debate he advised me to borrow Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals from the library and to read it carefully. That was the first time—I was then in the second year of intermediate at Morris College, Nagpur—I had heard of Russell. I loved the book. I would often think of this book by this mathematician-turned-philosopher in my later years, and Russell’s ideas on morality and on pacifism left a deep impression on me. Although I hardly understood it fully then, one formulation by him had appealed strongly to me, that if a man or a woman goes on a long journey, without his or her spouse, and if in that period he or she sleeps with someone, there is nothing wrong with it and should in fact be acceptable. How could this have seemed reasonable to me then? I had studied at a madrasa, my father was the kind of person who had memorized the whole Quran and prayed five times a day; this was the environment in which I had grown up, and I too had been quite diligent in observing my religious duties till my teenage. The only way I could think of marriage was to see it as a sacrosanct bond, not to be treated lightly. Anyway, the debate passed off uneventfully.

Habib Tanvir Memoirs: Translated by Mahmood Farooqui, Penguin/Viking, 345 pages, Rs 599
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Habib Tanvir Memoirs: Translated by Mahmood Farooqui, Penguin/Viking, 345 pages, Rs 599

There was a ‘lover boy’ in our college. Short but handsome, very fair, sharp-featured, blue-eyed and with blond hair that sparkled like gold in the sun. His name was Judge. He was ahead of us. He was very bright but paid no attention to studies and often failed. There would have been hardly any boy or girl in college who did not know him. Whether senior or junior all the students knew his name, appearance and reputation. He used to drink, roam around with girls and splurge money on them. His father had been the diwan of Travancore state and was presently a minister in Jaipur, so his family was wealthy. His sole occupation was to drink and squander money on girls.

There was a girl in our college called Miss Pandit and Judge was having an affair with her, which everybody knew about. It was an open secret, and Judge and Miss Pandit never attempted to hide it. Whenever our gang discussed Miss Pandit and Judge, Salam’s face would assume a grave expression, Qureshi would boast about his escapades and encounters at Betul, Bhushanlal, whom all of us considered an idiot, would laugh continuously and Pande would sum up the entire episode in one word—asabhya. One day we heard that Judge had committed suicide. He was visiting Jaipur and had asked his father for a large sum of money. When his father refused he pulled out his father’s pistol from the drawer and shot himself in the temple. Who knows whether it was an accident or suicide. Anyway, Judge was no more. I remember the incident of Chaman–Pareena, which had occurred in the same Morris College. I had first heard the story of Chaman–Pareena from the mouth of a blind fakir who sang beautifully about them. This was in 1940 or just before that when I was still at school in Raipur. Chaman and Pareena both studied at Morris College and attended the same classes together. They fell in love with each other but Chaman was a Hindu and Pareena was a Parsi. Their parents refused consent for marriage and one day they both eloped. A few days later their corpses were discovered in the Telan Kheri pond. Nowadays Telan Kheri has become very developed, meaning that the forest has vanished so completely that it seems it was never there. It was believed that Chaman and Pareena hid in that jungle for a few days. After spending some intimate moments they tied themselves together with their clothes and jumped into the pond. That song and the mendicant’s singing had made their story famous all over the state. In Raipur, I had known this story even as a schoolboy. Later on, the parents of Chaman and Pareena had leaned on the collector and got a legal ban on the singing and dissemination of that poem:

Khud fana hoke zaat mein milna

Yeh tamasha hubaab mein dekha

—Wali Dakkani

To dissolve one’s self in

Existence

I saw this spectacle in a

bubble.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Habib Tanvir Memoirs.

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