“To us, Mumbai was like a good and familiar friend,” says Vandana Mishra nee Sushila Lotlikar in her autobiography I, the Salt Doll , translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto. This friendship shines through in the book, making it a memoir of an individual, a city and an era, all at once.
Born Sushila Lotlikar in 1927 and propelled to the Mumbai theatre by circumstances, the author went on to become one of the most successful actors of her time in a career spanning Marathi, Gujarati and Marwadi theatre. She married fellow actor Jaydeo Mishra and retired at the age of 21, only to return to the stage 22 years later. Mumbai is lovingly documented — a key character amid a wide cast — and the author does not fail to remind us that these are reminiscences from a gentler, more inclusive time. “ Bhaiyya literally means brother,” she says, adding, “Our bhaiyyas had their place but political forces suddenly made them outsiders.” The bhaiyya (or North Indian person) would collect the rent and make sure all the amenities were in working order at the chawl that Mishra, her mother and siblings lived in after the untimely death of her father. Similarly, she reminds us of the contribution of and camaraderie between the various communities; Mishra herself descends from a line of Saraswat migrants going back to the Portuguese era in Goa, and proves to us that the story of Mumbai can never be a linear, homogenous one.
The autobiography strings together everything, from the intricacies of chawl life in Girgaon to Irani restaurants with their unique customer identification system for billing, from the influence of classical music and the heyday of theatre to the rise of cinema and role of film songs in the Independence movement. As she narrates the hardships faced by her single mother and the joys and ordeals of her own life, Mishra provides insights into the mores and lifestyle of the time.
If I, the Salt Doll harks back to a more idyllic Mumbai, we also see some grim realities unchanged. Even as she describes to us the impact of social reform and education on women’s empowerment, Mishra’s own dreams are cut short by an acid attack on her mother, a nurse, and the sole earning member in the family. Compelled to drop out of school, she joins Marathi theatre at a crucial time in its history. The era of the ‘sangeetnatak’, Bal Gandharva, and the ‘stree’ part or female role typically played by a male actor, have come to an end and women have begun to make their presence felt.
Mishra joins Parshwanath Altekar’s Little Theatre Group in 1940, when Marathi experimental theatre has come of age. We are privy to rare insights from this time and to the world of experimental playwright Mama Warerkar, the leader of the movement. Describing him as the first feminist she meets, she credits both him and Altekar with bringing women to the Marathi stage. Mishra’s foray into the more lucrative Gujarati theatre and, later, into Marwadi theatre with laudable success, gives us a glimpse of a multilingual city comfortable in its cosmopolitan skin. Anecdotes from Gujarati theatre with its cast of actors like the comedian Chhagan Romeo, and from the Marwadi stage, paint portraits of a theatre-crazy populace before it swore its allegiance to cinema. Even as Mishra describes the rigours of her craft, she draws an actor’s analogy with life: “This is one play that does not appear before the audience. One sees it alone, in the dark.”
The juxtaposition of personal history with that of the city and the nation takes us through a series of incidents such as the Bombay Docks explosion during the centennial celebration of Marathi theatre and of the sight of British police officers taking off their hats, and sergeants going down on their knees to welcome Gandhi. Mishra briefly considers joining the women’s corps of Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA but is dissuaded by her mother. Eventually, Independence comes “with a sob in its throat and blood on its hands”. The narrative is a telling sociological commentary with its grand cultural sweep, made lively with Marathi proverbs and charming details such as the ‘piyush’ drink, the term ‘ganjifrock’ for a man’s inner vest, and a time of rationing when only ice cream could be served at wedding receptions.
She talks of interacting with artistes such as Kumar Gandharva, Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote. However, Mishra keeps it private. References to her marriage, family life and members are matter-of-fact; Mumbai is the real heroine.
Like the metaphorical salt doll, Mishra’s is a story of acceptance and oneness with time. One is grateful for Pinto’s translation. When the author herself acknowledges that the translation is flawless, there is little more to be said.
Janhavi Acharekar is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. She is the author of
the novel, Wanderers, All.