Sushila Lotlikar was barely in her teens when tragedy forced her to give up her education and join Parshwanath Altekar’s Little Theatre in Mumbai in 1940. But the young Konkani girl soon became a hit on the Gujarati stage and went on to storm the Marwadi stage. And then, at the age of twenty-one, she retired. Taking her mother’s advice – “The world of cinema and theatre is like a coal shop, your hands are going to get black’ – she married actor-writer Pandit Jaydeo Mishra and “moulted” into Vandana Mishra. But in a singular twist of fate she was to return to the stage 22 years later and begin another glorious innings as a character actor.

Mumbai was seen as a place that could use the work of your hands and in return, it would fill your belly. Everyone was welcome, or so we thought. It was a workers’ town. It only became known as a city of the rich after 1960. Earlier, it was a city of the working class.

People were ready to adjust and live in peace and harmony for they felt they belonged. And after that, the next fifty years have been a period of loot and plunder. This we owe to our leaders.

There has been no end to their greed. Everyone was trying to squeeze whatever profit they could out of the city.

We were followers of Gandhiji. We still owe some allegiance to him even today. He was a big man who had the interests of the nation at heart. He had an ethical influence on the country and so the local leaders, at the grassroots level, also behaved themselves and were disciplined. There was a Gandhian who lived in our area too. His speech and behaviour were gentle. He was known to keep fasts and lived an austere life. He came to be called The Girgaon Gandhi.

In truth, it was not as if the Independence struggle had much effect on us.

We did not rise every morning with the demand for independence on our lips. At one level, this was because of Mumbai’s philosophy: we’re fine so long as our work’s fine. You got up and you went about your business. That’s how the city was.

Nor did the British get in our way much. Their administrative systems were near-perfect. Most inhabitants of our chawl were followers of Lokmanya Tilak so we had no idea what Gandhiji was up to most of the time. People around us would say that you could not tell when he would change his course, when he would modify his stance. After 1940, this began to change. And by 1942, the struggle for Independence had become an angry, vocal one.

Let me share a memory from my childhood. I must have been about three or four years old when I began to hear the English words, “Go back, Simon” from time to time. When we were playing and had a fight one of us might say to the other, “Go back, Simon!” Our mother also talked about this. “Nowadays people are really angry with the British. How much of this ‘Go back, Simon’ is going on.”

It was only many years later that I learned that seven members of the British parliament had been sent under Sir John Simon to talk to the leaders of the Independence movement. Various demonstrations had been organised and people waved a lot of black flags at him. There were processions and meetings all over the city, all echoing the cry, “Simon, go back." Simon must have gone home, empty-handed, unaware that his name was still floating around the Ramji Purushottam Chawl.

The political atmosphere began to heat up after 1940. We were feeling the pinch of the Second World War. Rationing had been imposed on us. There was a shortage of grain and that awful Brazilian rice had the consistency of sago. There was no kerosene for the stoves. Life became difficult and every day brought fresh horror stories.

Anna Chaudhury, our neighbour, would keep Aai abreast of the developments after he had read his paper. “Have you heard, Babi’s Mum? Hitler seems to be set on marching to Moscow.” Aai would drag herself to Princess Street and back, carrying the burden of this news, always worried about what would happen to us.

If a bomb were to fall on our chawl, Nanda’s mother would naturally look out for Nandu and Bhavdya. But who would be around to look after her three? It became difficult for her to go to work.

Then there was talk about evacuating Mumbai. Nanda and family would head back to Pune. The Chaudhuris would take Dayanath off to the village. A knot of fear would form in her stomach as she wondered what would become of us. When she had the night shift, the three of us would huddle together and somehow get through the night. Messrs Hitler and Co had us all shook up.

You would not believe how cheap Mumbai was before the war.

Onions? Two annas a rattal. Potatoes were three. A coconut was three paise; an anna for a good fat one. Kerosene cost seven paise a big bottle. Mutton was nine annas a rattal. A vaata of prawns was eight annas. And a pair of pomfret? Three and a half rupees. If you went to the docks and bought fish, it was even cheaper.

As for cloth, a rather flashy georgette sari was fourteen to fifteen rupees. The cloth was of excellent quality. It would not tear on washing. And if it turned out bad, you didn’t have to fight with the shopkeeper to get it replaced. An ordinary sari cost two rupees, at the most three. A pair of chappals cost one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half rupees and they were good sturdy things too. You bought a pair and you didn’t bother about another for the next two years.

Tickets to the cinema? Four annas for the pit. Above that were the eight-anna seats, twelve annas, and two- and-a-half rupees for the box. A good strong cup of tea that could make a corpse get up and walk cost one anna.

You could get a blouse stitched for four annas and milk was four annas a seer. My mother would say that when she got married, gold was twenty rupees a tola and we found that difficult to believe. But then when I got married in 1947, gold was seventy rupees a tola and people find that difficult to believe now.

Mumbai was truly a heavenly city. We are told that paradise has trees laden with salted almonds and shelled pistachio, that the hills have rivers of milk running down them. Mumbai was like that.

So how do I remember the price of onions after so many years, my neighbours and friends ask me. What harm is there in remembering good things?

Today – as I write this – onions are seventy-five to eighty rupees a kilo. Should I remember this terrible thing? Is this what I should recount to the next generation? That onions cost seventy-five rupees a kilo in this city?

At another level, people say they are willing to accept that onions might have been two paise a rattal but they also add that people’s salaries were also correspondingly low. I can tell you about our family.

Aai’s salary was sixty rupees a month and we managed very well on that. We were happy. Today young people earn sixty to seventy thousand a month – at least the educated ones do. And yet they complain and whine.

It might be that these handsome salaries are spent on the cost of the good life, entertainment, clothes, children’s education, those endless classes and tuitions, the dinners out or something, I don’t know. Be that as it may, what I wanted to say was simply this: the Second World War gave Mumbai its first taste of high prices.

They say this war changed the course of world history and rewrote its geography too. And at this time too, something changed the lives of the residents of Ramji Purushottam Chawl. And because of that I ended up in the world of theatre.

Excerpted with permission from I, The Salt Doll, Vandana Mishra, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger Books.