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Yesteryear actress Vandana Mishra’s memoir has been translated by Jerry Pinto as I, The Salt Doll, and tells the story of a strong woman facing her challenges.
Following the success of his translation of Baluta, Jerry Pinto has taken on the autobiography of another Maharashtrian who theoretically can be considered to be marginalized. This time an actress who grew up in Ramji Purushottam Chawl in the 1930’s, as Suchila Lotlikar, and became Vandana Mishra on her marriage.
Mishra takes the title of her narrative from the apocryphal story of the salt doll that lived and played by the sea but then one day decided to take a bath.
Mishra grew up under the care of her widowed mother Aai, a remarkable woman who learnt nursing in order to keep her small family running. Her memories include homely things like the cheapness of onions, the price of mutton and the relative simplicity of life. The Bombay that she knew was a working class city that would repay hard work with a full belly. It became a city of the rich from the 1960’s. The book is divided into three with her growing years taking the bulk of the space.
Mishra’s is an account of life in an easier time untroubled by communal discord. A time when actors and actresses kept their private lives under wraps and neighbourhoods looked after their own. She talks about the restaurants where they went to eat and her brother’s love of rawa laddoos. She describes her chawl getting together to celebrate various functions and the organized way in which contributions for Ganesh Chaturthi were gathered – extra money was used to entertain the children after the puja was over. Landlords would not pester for the rent, though they did expect it to be paid. There was music, there was singing and there was harmony.
She is a keen observer of social nuances, and character. A woman who came to her acting school with a make up plastered face was told by the teacher that actresses only need make up onstage, just as doctors are not seen running around with stethoscopes.
Mishra became an actress at Parshwanath Altekar’s Little Theatre after she was forced to leave school to look after her mother. She talks about her acting career without making too much of it, simply stating the facts and some of the people she met, also mentioning that actresses found it hard to marry into conservative society. Her husband Mishraji came from unconventional circles and was himself a theatre person – though he preferred his wife not to act.
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The book is full of songs from different folk traditions which Pinto has translated keeping the rhythms in mind.
Mishra looks back from what she terms fifty years filled with loot and plunder, the gift to Mumbai’s citizens from the political leaders who followed the British, then Gandhi and Nehru. Those who criticise colonial times would be surprised to hear her saying that the British administration of the municipality was perfect and that they never got in the way of life in the chawl, except when the effects of World War II began to be felt. From a ship explosion during a theatrical performance she skips forward to the Mumbai blasts and talks about how the city went back to its daily routine the following day with everything forgotten.
Vandana Mishra comes across as the woman of substance she undoubtedly is, willing to make the best of life and fairly outspoken about the advantages and fellow feeling of the past. Pinto’s translation seems to bring out the rhythms of her voice and her story will resonate with theatre fans and memoir lovers.
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