Book Review: I, the Salt Doll by Vandana Mishra, Translated by Jerry Pinto

by Mugdha Wagle on June 6, 2016

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Writer: Vandana Mishra, translated by Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Year: 2016
ISBN: 9789385755767
Rating: ★★★★☆
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I, the Salt Doll is a memoir by Vandana Mishra, born in 1930s Mumbai, who lived in the city all her life, first as a schoolgirl in Girgaon, then as a theatre actress, then a homemaker and mother, and then once again as a theatre star. But it also serves as a memoir of Mumbai, and herein lies its charm. Buy I, The Salt Doll at the best price here.

What did I love?

The simple narrative style of the book made me feel like I was listening to a chirpy, twinkly-eyed grandma reminiscing. The social commentary in the book is subtle, generous, with dabs of humour but it leaves all the more impact because it makes the reader realise how different Mumbai today is from what it once was. For example, Vandanatai’s Mumbai is inclusive, not insular; as she mentions casually: “In the old system of Mumbai, our bhaiyyas (people from UP and Bihar) had their place but political forces suddenly made them outsiders.” Her mother, who worked as a midwife at a hospital after her husband died young, claimed that people made no distinction between boys and girls being born. But the book never hammers such facts down our throats; rather, such snippets are scattered across the narrative.

Vandanatai herself comes across as a down-to-earth yet strong person. Glimpses of her school life, childhood games and festivals are innocent and sweet. Yet, when her mother’s career is destroyed by an acid attack, the stark reality of their existence is brought to the fore. A widowed lady with no family protection, with three children to support, is left bedridden in agony, most likely because she refused some man’s advances (her mother never discussed it, probably to protect her family, but it should be obvious). That’s when Sushila Lotlikar, as she was known before her marriage, started working in theatre.

As a successful theatre artiste in Gujarati and Marwadi theatre, Sushila supported her family while being in a ringside seat to observe Mumbai’s glamour industry. She took pride in her work, learning from good teachers. While she could have acted in films as well, she left that route to others. She does speak with affection of certain people in the film industry, particularly lauding their dignity and humility, especially in contrast to today’s actors – as she sees it, today’s celebrities blur the line between fiction and reality by splashing details of their lives all over Page 3. However, her criticism is mild and reasonable, and she does mention a few recent movies that she has liked.

As could be expected, she is reticent about her life with her husband, writer Jaydeo Mishra. She retired from the stage once she married, with grace and as per her own wishes. She did act again later, after her children had grown up, but these instances were few and far between.

The verdict?

Anyone interested in a slice of life memoir that delves deep into the heart of a city would enjoy reading I, A Salt Doll. The Mumbai vignettes – a mention of the first Mumbai riot in 1876, the description of chawl life, sub-standard rice from Brazil being provided by the British government during Second World War (Vandanatai credits Hitler being the indirect reason for her community rejecting their traditional rice meals for wheat)… such details add savour to her story, a remarkable one by itself. Buy I, The Salt Doll at the best price here.

Written by Mugdha Wagle

Kitabi Keeda of the most obsessive sort. When she’s reading something, interrupt her only if you have life insurance! Discovering a fantastic new author can move her to tears. Loves trekking, adores animals and venerates good food (eating it, not cooking it :))!

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