What I remember….
- April 17, 2023
It is difficult to believe that Habib Sa’ab is no more. Even though I hadn’t met him for a couple of years now, there was a comfort in knowing he was there. Through the ups and downs of my journey there was solace in knowing that there was a man not too far away, in Bhopal, who had relentlessly struggled in his life, but never without a smile. Habib Sa’ab, as we all fondly called him, was an inspiration, a quiet strength that I will always cherish. If one had to chronicle his life and work, it would be almost like understanding the life of our country and its people over the last 80 years. His artistic, political and social voice was loud and clear and reflected a spirit that could not be extinguished.
But today, all I see in front of my eyes is that special person who was all heart. I was about to board a flight at JFK when I got an sms from a friend giving me the heart-sinking news. I took the 16 hour direct flight to Delhi thinking and probably even dreaming of all the wonderful times I had had with him. When I got back and read some of the write-ups about him, the weight of the loss started getting heavier and heavier. He was a man who lived by his convictions, yet didn’t wear it on his sleeves, he was an angry man yet always smiled, he was touched by everything in the world yet created his own. While the persona was overwhelming, as I rummage through the memories, it is the person who I deeply miss.
I knew him since I was a child as my parents were family friends. The world of artists then was vibrant and they frequently met and shared their ideas and work. I have vivid memories of not only watching his plays, but also the rehearsals. My father would often drop me at the open-air theatre at the Triveni Kala Sangam, while he went to see the exhibitions. And I would watch with fascination the actors rehearsing and Habib Sa’ab, with pipe in his mouth, restlessly going up and down the stage. I used to love the humor in his plays even as a child, but understood the many layers behind it only when I grew up.
When I was in college, one day I went upto Habib Sa’ab and asked him if I could act in his play. He laughed and told me that I will have to speak and act like a Chattisgarhi and the rehearsals will not be less than 2 months. That was not a deterrent at all! In being a Chattisgarhi there was challenge, learning the language was exciting and more than performing, all I wanted to do was to experience the process. After my classes I would go to his place in Ber Sarai and rehearse with his troupe for the play Dekh Rahein Hain Nain. I got really close to his family and actors and they made me a part of their world in no time. The play rehearsal, living a different life for those hours was all far more interesting than the college education.
My memory of that play is fuzzy, but the conversations ranging from politics to food, singing with Nagin, Deepak, Poonam and others, a special bond with Monica di, Habib Sa’ab’s hearty laughter, all comes back effortlessly. Fortunately that wasn’t my only theatre experience with him. I was to play Chameli Jaan in Moteram ka Satyagrah, a play he was doing with Jan Natya Manch, a street theatre group that I was a part of, for more than 4 years. This play was being put together after Safdar Hashmi had been brutally murdered and all of us had pledged to keep the flame burning. Habib Sa’ab and Safdar shared a very special relationship with a lot of mutual admiration. We rehearsed the play for over a month and just as the day of the show was coming nearer, I got jaundice. Guess I was meant to only rehearse with the master, never perform!
His demise has created a deep loss and it’s a scary reminder of the fading away of a generation whose enormous contribution to our lives and the world we inhabit will sadly be understood in its entirety, only when it’s gone. There was an ease with which Habib Sa’ab was in this world but not of it. He did lot many things and was much more than the sum total of its parts. I am fortunate to have been touched by his humanity, his passion, his voice, his commitment and his life. His presence in what I am today is not screaming out loud, but I know it is there. And for that I feel blessed.