Review: The Romance of Salt by Anil Dharker

The Romance of Salt

The first time history of salt intrigued me was through a suggestion on my Amazon account - the book ‘Salt’ by Mark Kurlansky. I clicked on it out of curiosity about the cover design rather than the name. The description sounded interesting – it covered history of salt through thousands of years and its impacts throughout history. I probably added it to my wish-list, while desisting myself from buying it owing to the ever-increasing books on my shelf. But books have a way of coming back to you. Somehow they always end up in front of you when you are looking for them in the least. I picked up ‘The Romance of Salt’ from Oxford Bookstore during a sale. Apart from the sale, what interested me more was that it had the first section completely dedicated to the ‘Dandi March’ (Salt Satyagraha) of Gandhi. During Tata Literature Festival (of 2012), I had seen Mr. Dharker during one of the talks. My earliest memories of him are of reading his columns in the Times of India in younger days.

As much as the book interested me, the cover design was a disappointment. It was a mere unattractive collage of colorful images pasted together. It seemed like those stock images found in the millions on the internet. The first part of the book is about Dandi March, while the second one covers the role salt has played as an actor in life, death and everything in between. It starts with how “prominent Indian political leaders like Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Dr. M.A. Ansari and M.A. Jinnah were summoned by the Viceroy and handed over a document announcing the poointment of a Royal Commission to be headed by Sir John Simon”. It was the beginning of another betrayal by the British wherein all the seven members were white and British. This formed the mood for Civil Disobedience with Gandhi being at the helm. Out of the various options of boycott, salt was chosen by Gandhi as it would rouse the lowest denominator of the strata as well – because the British were unjustly taxing the production of salt in the country which was resulting in salt imports. This irony was for everyone to see, but nobody had one anything about it till then. And as shown by the meticulous calculations in the book, the taxes made the commonest of the common commodity ridiculously expensive. The author has got many letters and speeches of Gandhi printed along with his commentary to create the anticipatory mood prevailing 85 years ago in Sabarmati Ashram. From the selection of marchers, planning of the route, backup marchers and backup leadership in the likes of Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, everything is used to rouse the spirit in a revolutionary mode. The long speeches of Gandhi bring out his mood at that moment – contemplating what would force the world and British to take notice, whether the media would be on their side and, most of all, the loss of lives which may happen due to police brutality. Some aspects also bring out the short comings of him though. Like his opposition to vaccination, not on any scientific basis, but only because he had done so all his life; his use of Hindu prayers in Ashram was a sign that his movement was ‘Hindu oriented’, alienating Muslims to a great extent. His stressing on non-violent forms of opposition is commendable, as much is his strict regimen even though he was already sixty years old! This section is a complete page turner. Mr. Dharker sets you right in the middle of things, and one cannot actually miss the feeling of being witness to one of the greatest movements of Indian independence.

Photos from a trip to Dandi in 2009
The second part is not as exciting as the first one – but more so because it deals with not specific events but the elapse of time in terms of the importance of salt. The author brings out vivid stories of war, and sometimes love, having salt as an important character – American Civil War, German advancement in Russia during Second World War, French Revolution, Mummification in Egypt and the Seven Years’ War between Austria and Prussia to name a few. He also dwells briefly on the properties of salt, the effects of over-usage, how in the past many considered it as symbolic of semen, the Dead Sea, the major salt producer countries, and finally writes about the role of Tata Salt factories in Mithapur, Gujarat in the uplifting of the society around the area and its socially responsible actions. The final chapter, ‘Giving Life to Life’ is a touching one, detailing the various migratory birds which come to the western Gujarat region and also about the fishes found in that region.

It is a short book of 225 pages with ample black and white photographs. Anyone interested in knowing why Gandhi chose only the seemingly harmless salt as his weapon against the ruling British must read this book. It brings forth interesting anecdotes and charms you with a simple, flowing writing style.


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