“A salt doll spends time frolicking on the shore, building sand castles or collecting shells. Enamoured as she is of the deep, calm sea…, one day the salt doll decides to enter the blue waters for a good bath. And never returns.”
This brief note, slipped lightly in by the translator, Jerry Pinto, beautifully explains the Marathi title, Mee Mithaachi Baahuli, drawn from an old folk tale. It sets the tone for Vandana Mishra’s lively memoir, I, The Salt Doll, (Speaking Tiger, Rs 299) of her life as a theatre actress and a young girl growing up in a now-distant Mumbai.
Mishra, now 90, writes with such directness that it feels as if she’s sitting next to the reader, lightly touching your shoulder for emphasis as she tells one story after another. She was born Sushila Lotlikar, changing her name after she married the writer and actor Pandit Jaydeo Mishra. Her family was originally from Goa, but moved to Mumbai after her father’s sudden death and the refusal of relatives to let her mother claim her share of the family property.
They settled down in the chawls of Mumbai, first in Lamington Road, then in Girgaum. The landlords were seldom seen; they conducted their business through the bhaiyyas, “a word from the old city”, she writes, that meant just brother before it became an identifier for someone from north India or Bihar. “Radio was very young, hardly eight to ten years old.”
Instead, they listened to the “rooster-like call” of the Muslim bread vendor who brought pao, still warm from the oven. They sang songs at the festivals that marked the “woman’s calendar”. They heard Hirabai Badodekar and Kesarbai Kerkar sing; Bombay Talkies’ film, Jawaani ki Hawa, made ripples in 1935.
The chawl was bookmarked by a Goan Christian community and a Parsi neighbourhood. The Pathan guard and the Chinese sweaterwallah signalled the wider world to the young Sushila. At home, she loved rice with buttermilk and mango pickle, her Aai’s bhakri. The Ganesh festival was “a matter of joy and not an occasion for ostentation”, and their locality, Khetwadi was a huge patchwork. “Each wadi had its own character and together they faced the city.” Mumbai would fill your belly if you were willing to work, she writes: “Everyone was welcome, or so we thought. It was a workers’ town.” Onions were two annas for half a kilo before the war; potatoes were three.
When she was 13, her mother was severely injured in an acid attack. The assailant was never identified. Sushila’s Aai was young, beautiful, a widow and a nurse – positions low in “this terrible social hierarchy”. Had she rejected some man? Had he taken revenge? That moment’s cruelty marked their lives. Her Aai took years to recover, Sushila’s education and her dreams of studying medicine ended. Instead, she joined Parashwanath Altekar’s Little Theatre Group, accepting what came her way, stoic, but still full of life, gratitude, curiosity.
Every day, Altekar delivered lectures to his troupe on the fundamental princples of theatre. He had pioneered the revolutionary idea that women should play women’s roles on stage; the playwright Mama Warrerkar (“the first feminist I met”) taught them speech. Her memories of Marathi theatre are as precious as her memories of Mumbai before the city grew “hard-hearted”.
Pinto’s decision to retain the original Marathi of the many poems and songs Sushila shares, lends beautiful texture to a translation that feels deft and welcoming to the non-Marathi reader. There is one jarring note, when the Pathan’s accent is rendered clunkily – “She’s a wee thing. How couldja hit her?” Translating Indian languages into foreign dialect rarely works well, but this is the only exception to Pinto’s careful rendering of her vivacious storytelling.
Pinto writes, about his translation, “I wanted to go back to a time when the city I live in was inclusive and welcoming, a city of workers, where man and woman toiled alike to build the mayanagri of India’s imagination.” The love that went into the writing of I, The Salt Doll, and its translation, makes this a very special memoir, of the life of an extraordinary woman in a city at a time when it, too, was extraordinary.