Bombay Balchao by Jane Borges
Published by: Tranquebar/Westland Publications
Rating: 4.50/5 stars
Bombay was the city everyone came to in the early decades of the nineteenth century: among them, the Goans and the Mangloreans. Looking for safe harbor, livelihood, and a new place to call home. Communities congregated around churches and markets, sharing lord and land with the native East Indians. The young among them were nudged on to the path of marriage, procreation and godliness, though noble intentions were often ambushed by errant love and plain and simple lust. As in the story of Annette and Benji (and Joe) or Michael and Merlyn (and Ellen).
Lovers and haters, friends and family, married men and determined singles, churchgoers and abstainers, Bombay Balchao is a tangled tale of ordinary lives – of a woman who loses her husband to a dockyard explosion and turns to bootlegging, a teen romance that drowns like a paper boat, a social misfit rescued by his addiction to crosswords, a wife who tries to exorcise the spirit of her dead mother in law from her husband, a rebellious young woman who spurns true love for the abandonment of dance. Ordinary, except through their own eyes. Then, it’s legend.
Set in Caval, a tiny Catholic neighborhood on Bombay’s D’Lima Street, this delightful debut novel is painted with many shades of history and memory, laughter and melancholy, sunshine and silver rain.
About the author:
Jane Borges is a Mumbai based journalist. She currently writes on books, heritage and urban planning for Mid-Day. She has previously co-authored Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands with S. Hussain Zaidi. Bombay Balchao is her first fiction novel.
*Thank you Westland Publications for the review copy. All opinions are my own.
Bombay Balchao is a book that teases readers with its narrative structure, its characters and setting. Set in Caval, a tiny Catholic neighborhood on Bombay’s D’Lima Street, the author effortlessly weaves an intergenerational tale of a Goan catholic family, the Coutinhos living in Bosco Mansion, an old two storeyed building. Other residents of the building and the neighbors of the Coutinhos, the lives they live and the situations they find themselves in make for an engaging read.
The back and forth in the chronology of events can be slightly confusing to begin with but the narrative casts a spell that binds the reader to turn the pages while stopping at times to laugh with consternation at times and at times with great amusement. The characters are unique and their life journeys more so: one sided love, elopements, a miracle regarding a Pastor on fire (literally), a crazy misunderstanding over chikkoos and the matter of ghosts and some more.
Borges takes readers to the history of the Catholic population in the city of Bombay, peppering the book with historical facts and fictional ties which makes for fascinating reading: the diversity in the community stemming from different backgrounds: the East Indian Christians who are descendants of the Portuguese colonial elements, the Goan Catholics and the Manglorean Catholics.
The cherry on top is the reference to the culinary richness of the Catholics and how food plays an integral role in times of celebration and conversations with how just the mix of spices to make a common dish can taste so different. The chapter on a main protagonist making Balchao, the Goan masala paste/pickle is poignant and evocative, leaving one longing to reach out and taste it and be seduced by it. That chapter alone is poetry and will create a flutter of emotions in the reader, as it does, to the characters involved.
The sprinkling of socio political history in the narrative and the contributions of the Catholic population in the backdrop of existential issues in Bombay/Mumbai: shared spaces, rent and landlord issues, water allocation and housing woes coupled with the mix of characters that are extremely regular people yet so unique personalities make Bombay Balchao an unforgettable read.