I, the Salt Doll

By Vandana Mishra

Translated By: Jerry Pinto

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 221

Price: Rs 299


What happens when you follow the will-o’-the-wisp of memory? One thing leads to another and then to a third and fourth.  Translated by Jerry Pinto, I, The Salt Doll is Vandana Mishra’s autobiography — written from her village in Borivali, as she approaches her 90th year, with warmth, humour, empathy and wisdom.

In this book, Mishra narrates the events leading from her childhood days in the city of Bombay to her years as a theatrician and later as a married woman. The events in Mishra’s book of memories are also shaped in great measure by the urban discourse of one of India’s richest metro cities. Her story takes in so much of what the city was, and so much of what the city still is.

Mishra, whose maiden name is Sushila Lotlikar, was born into a Saraswat Brahman family, originally from Goa. Her forefathers had taken refuge in Konkan, in the Rajapur district of Ratnagiri. But the Konkani language gave way to a local dialect of Marathi after Mishra shifted to Bombay as a child. The new cultural ethos had made inroads into the family’s eating habits as well. Fish, which earlier used to be part of their main diet, gradually began to be replaced by the dietary preferences of an average Mumbaikar. No sooner had young Sushila managed to adjust to the changing landscape of her surroundings than the first tragedy hit her family. Her father died due to a chest infection. This was in the age before antibiotics.

Left to fend for herself and her three children, Lakshmibai Lotlikar, Sushila’s mother, initially decided to pay heed to their close relatives advice, and moved back to their ancestral home in Adivre. But Adivre was nothing like the city of Bombay. Here, Lakshmibai was forced to live like a widow, was asked to shave her head and refrain from participating in most cultural activities. She was made to remain perpetually subservient and had to restrict herself to petty household chores.

A liberal woman like Lakshmibai was reluctant to live such a life. She also did not want her children to grow up in such surroundings. That is when she decided to face the hardships of a big city, move back to Mumbai and take a course in midwifery, finally ending up with a job in Dr Tilak’s maternity home for a monthly salary of Rs 40.

Sushila, in her formative years, had closely witnessed all the struggles that her mother had to endure, and this left an indelible imprint on her psyche. So much so, that when another tragedy befell, as her mother suffered an acid attack, Sushila did not bat an eyelid when forced to take up financial responsibilities for the sustenance of her family, even though she knew that this meant giving up her education.

Sushila was forced to join Parshwanath Altekar’s Little Theatre in Mumbai in 1940. With a background in music, under Shri Swami Samarth School, the young Konkani girl soon became a hit on the Gujarati stage and went on to storm the Marathi stage.

She writes in the book how Maharashtra has always been the hot seat of many social movements, from the ideas put forth by Jyotibai Phule to those of Mahadev Govind  Ranade. They had shown the way for education cutting across all classes and castes; most importantly women empowerment — something that had once inspired Sushila’s mother to throw away the life of a widow that society had thrusted upon her and something that did not deter young Sushila from taking up a career in arts and culture; a field frowned upon in “good Marathi families” in those days.

At the age of 21, Sushila retired from her profession to marry actor-writer Pandit Jaydeo Mishra and became Vandana Mishra only to return to the stage after her husband’s death 22 years later and begin another glorious innings as an actor.

Presenting the life of a woman as she metamorphoses effortlessly from a Konkani girl speaking with a characteristic drawl to an accomplished Gujarati actor and later on a Marwadi actor,  the book is also a compelling portrait of Mumbai — seen from within; from the stage, from the heart of the old city, from the new suburbs — and in its own quiet way, it is a plea for the pluralism and diversity that made it a great metropolis.

Sushila describes how cinema was becoming a powerful medium, more so with the Second World War. New Theatre and Prabhat Film company were providing rich content. Around 1940, the cinema of Lahore came to Mumbai. The average Marathi was pleased that people like V. Shantaram, Durga Khote were stars in whose footsteps they could follow. In between, Sushila also describes how getting an accomodation for those from the film industry in respectable places like Dadar or Girgaon was difficult, a problem that Bollywood actors still face.

She reminiscesa about the songs of Lata Mangeshkar, Talat Mehmood, Begum Akhtar and quickly recalls a favourite song sequence and the sweet flirting scene of Achla Sachdeva and Balraj Sahni in “Ae Mere Zohrajabeen, Tujhe Maloom Nahi” from Waqt  while comparing directors and actors of yesterday with today. 

She also recalls how Mumbai as a city has transformed from being an inclusive one to being the country’s largest potpourri of cultures. This idea, she substantiates by talking about how Parsi and Gujaratis traders specially, were often forced during those days to give up their traditions like kite-flying, the better to adjust to local Marathi traditions. 

An interesting insight in her narrative is when she discusses theatre under Altekar. The latter, alongwith Mama Warerkar, another renowned thespian  had for the first time brought in the revolutionary idea of women playing women’s roles on stage under the company called Radio Stars in 1931. Sushila opines that today while Vijay Tendulkar, Vijaya Mehta, Madhav Vatve are credited for experimental theatre, Altekar is not only ignored but also forgotten.

At the age of 21, Sushila retired from her profession to marry actor-writer Pandit Jaydeo Mishra and became Vandana Mishra only to return to the stage after her husband’s death 22 years later and begin another glorious innings as an actor.

The heartrending bit about the book is that even after a roller-coaster narrative of twisted fates that drove Mishra to a career in acting, her tale does not collapse into the humdrum routine of marriage and family.

Her memoir ends on a note of wisdom on the importance of a girl child’s education (something that was snatched away from her very early on in life),  the power of knowledge over money, the vulnerability of modern-day relationships, and so forth; all put across in a charmingly tricky tone.

I, the Salt Doll makes you a part of the struggle that the likes of Mishra made to build the Mumbai which today holds the stature of being the mayanagri of India’s imagination.

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