Memoir: Vandana Mishra

She is 87 years old. Her faculties are intact. Her memory works better than that of people half her age. That is why her memoir displays such exceptional clarity of thought and expression. Presenting Vandana Mishra, nee Susheela Lotlikar, once a well-known actor of Mumbai’s Gujarati and Marwadi stage and now  the author of Mi Mithachi Bahuli (I, a doll of salt).

Like the best in the genre, this memoir is not merely an account of a life, but of a time, a people and a way of life in which human relationships mattered more than money. With an unerring eye for detail, a bubbling sense of humour and a telling turn of phrase -- “A cup of tea cost an anna. Good, strong tea. So strong that even a corpse would wake up and start walking”-- Mishra captures for us the very spirit of middle-class Maharashtrian Girgaum. This was where she lived for 30 odd years as a schoolgirl, actor, wife and mother. Her early life ran parallel to the most turbulent events in India’s history, the early forties. Gandhiji’s call to the British to quit India, the naval mutiny, the Bombay dock explosion were all part of her life experiences. After the explosion, when gold bricks were said to have crashed through people’s roofs, she observes wryly, “I wish a few had crashed through ours.”

Hers was not an easy life. Her mother, widowed young, and working as a midwife in a nearby nursing home to raise her children, had acid thrown on her back one day. Suddenly overnight, a woman who had been a gritty single parent, was transformed into a long-term patient who needed daily care and expensive medication. Susheela left school to nurse her and also joined Parshwanath Altekar’s Little Theatre, where, while being rigorously trained in the theory and practice of theatre, she earned a stipend of Rs 30. This was hardly enough though to keep the wolf from the door. So one by one, the mother’s gold ornaments were sold. Hearing about this, Altekar helped her land her first role in a one-off Gujarati play for which she received “a georgette sari, two silver tumblers and Rs 250,” enough to bring temporary relief to a family that was teetering on the verge of penury.  

Susheela had a good ear for languages and quickly caught the cadences of Gujarati. Chimanlal Marwadi who directed this play, then offered her a role in Shri Desi Natak Samaj’s production, Samay Sathe (With the times). Shri Desi Natak Samaj was a prestigious theatre company of the time. It owned and performed in the Bhangwadi theatre, located in Kalbadevi. This was a single-storey building with a 700-seater auditorium on the ground floor and living quarters on the first, where the writers of the current play were housed. Bhangwadi plays generally had a main plot, sub-plot, comic interludes and songs and were out-and-out entertainers. Samay Sathe in which Susheela played the second heroine’s role, became a hit. Then came the company’s Vadilon na Vanke (Elders’ mistakes). Susheela’s monthly salary, Rs 350, finally freed the Lotlikar family from financial stress.

Mishra gives a hilarious account of Ramu-Chanana, a Marwadi play in which she later acted as the lead. In this Rajasthani tale about star-crossed lovers, the hero commits suicide and the heroine kills herself to meet him in heaven. But before that, she sings a farewell song. “The problem was that, invariably, the song received multiple encores and death had to be put off. Finally, the playwright Bharat Vyas came on the stage during one show and said to the audience, ‘When Chanana is waiting to embrace death how can you ask her to sing again?’ “ 

At 20, “Susheela Lotlikar moulted. She became Vandana Mishra,” says the author. She married Pandit Jaydev Mishra from Allahabad who had come to Bombay to write for the stage and cinema. Marriage within her caste had already been ruled out. The community’s view was, “The mother was a nurse and the daughter plasters her face with make-up to act in plays. We don’t want a girl like that as a daughter-in-law.” Vandana Mishra gave up the stage on her husband’s request and lived a culturally rich life with him, his friends and their children. But her life took its final downturn when her husband died of cancer and she had to return to the stage.

Despite all this, Mi Mithachi Bahuli is a warm, wise, witty memoir, lit with joy and an unfailing optimism.      

Published On : 24-09-2014