Mumbai fables

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Published: May 29, 2016 7:52:53 AM

An incredible peek into the past of a great city

I, The Salt Doll
Vandana Mishra; translated by
Jerry Pinto
Speaking Tiger
Pp 215

I, THE Salt Doll is a slim memoir that takes readers right back to a time when the city of Mumbai, then Bombay, was beginning to welcome people from all over, so that they could fulfill their dreams. It was—and is—a city of hope and that’s what the protagonist’s roller-coaster life tells us. Translated by Jerry Pinto, Mee Mithaachi Baahuli, or I, the Salt Doll, gives us an incredible peek into the past of a great city.

Born on January 27, 1927, Sushila Lotlikar’s parents moved to Bombay in 1918 to make a life for themselves. Her father was an accountant, mother a homemaker. Tragedy struck when she was two years old and her father died of pneumonia—this was before antibiotics were discovered. Her mother decided to take her three children and return to their ancestral village in the Konkan. But they didn’t feel welcome there and when her mother was told to shave off her hair as she was a widow, she decided to return to Bombay and begin life afresh.

I, the Salt Doll is as much about Lotlikar as it is about her mother, who trained to become a midwife. But just when they were settling down to an orderly life, tragedy struck again and the young Lotlikar, barely a teenager then, was forced to give up her studies and join the stage to become an actress. She became a part of Parshwanath Altekar’s Little Theatre in 1940. From there, the little Konkani girl went on to become an accomplished Gujarati and Marwadi actress, giving it all up at 21 years of age when she got married to actor-writer Pandit Jaydeo Mishra. This is the time when she began calling herself Vandana Mishra. She would rejoin the stage 22 years later after another twist of fate and become a famous character actor.

With independence in the air, the city and country, too, were in the throes of change. Lotlikar remembers the ‘rich and enterprising’ Parsis who drove around in Buicks, Morrises and Baby Austins; the Christians of Khotachiwadi known for their ‘socegado’, or fun-loving and peaceful ways; and life at Ramji Puroshottam Chawl, where caste was no bar and children filled the courtyard with laughter and games. Lotlikar also gives us a glimpse of the training she had at Altekar’s theatre company, the attention paid to voices, the tongue-twisters they had to say aloud to get the diction, breath control and pronunciations right.

Having lived in Mumbai since her birth, Lotlikar was witness to momentous events like the Bombay docks explosion, independence, the arrival of migrants and the changes that all these happenings brought to the city. She recalls seeing Gandhiji in an open vehicle: “He was slight of build but had energy in his face,” she remembers. Lotlikar also says Subhas Chandra Bose was a “hero to the youth of the times” with many young men wearing round spectacles like him.

But what will endear everyone to this book is the idea of Mumbai that Lotlikar writes about, its culture of acceptance regardless of caste, language or religion—a city, as Pinto writes in the wonderful afterword, which was ‘inclusive and welcoming’. The people of Mumbai, as Lotlikar reminds us, shouldn’t allow it to become a city of narrow parochialism. Her genial book of hope tells us that Bombay had a big heart that shouldn’t ever go missing.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer

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