Bombay Balchão

By Jane Borges

Tranquebar Publications – Hardcover 224 pages – ISBN 9388754751 – INR 499

(Available on Amazon and at all leading bookstores)

Any local resident will tell you that South Mumbai is fast emptying out of its erstwhile catholic populace; the crowded church pews of the past today offer you large empty swathes with a tinge of sadness and nostalgic remembrance of the glory days of the past. As the force of the catholic population steadily moves north and beyond, the rich cultural history of Catholicism and its adherents in its original moorings is in real danger of being forgotten.

Jane Borges’ deeply human book attempts to capture a little bit of that history in its pages for posterity. Bombay Balchão is a fictional tale of families from Cavel, a tiny catholic neighbourhood in South Mumbai’s Chira Bazaar district. Though each chapter can be read as a separate story, in effect these stories are glimpses of the lives of a common set of characters at different points in time. Each chapter adds a special thread to the overall tapestry that Jane masterfully weaves, as she moves from love to anger, passion to rage, jealousy to sacrifice, humour to tragedy, effortlessly through the pages of the book. At one level, Bombay Balchão is a parable of life, of how good and evil co-exist in the human soul and battle for survival.

The characters are stoic reminders of catholic caricatures: there’s Tresa Aunty, who runs the local watering hole; Lester, the tall and handsome hockey player; the sexagenarian spinster Ellena Gomes whose business it is to keep tabs on the lives of her neighbours; Joe Crasto, the star singer of the Catholic Gymkhana; Mario, the artist; the over-assuming and imaginative Merlyn; Thelma D’Costa, the piano virtuoso and conductor of the church choir and Michael, a steadfast husband and straight-thinking father. The stories follow many of these character’s lives from childhood to adulthood, to the cold and lonely isolation of old age. But in between, we get a vivid picture of catholic life, relationships and culture in the days gone by.

Why ‘Bombay Balchão’? In the words of the author herself, “In Goa, the balchão masala is traditionally used to prepare a prawn side dish that has a pickle-like flavour to it. This particular pickle is a melting point of flavours: It is spicy, as well as tangy and sweet. Since the novel comprises an assortment of quirky, sweet and hot-headed characters, it fit well with the ethos of this book.”

Jane found her inspiration for the book from the many conversations she had with long-time residents of the area. Jane is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer. This is her first independent book, having previously co-authored the gripping page-turner ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ with S. Hussain Zaidi in 2011.

The stories may seem outlandish and exaggerated at first glance, but a little introspection will tell you that it is the story of daily life – of lovers and haters, of church goers and abstainers, of married men and determined singles. Bombay Balchão is a work of fiction steeped in reality. An eclectic mix of history and romance, love and family, loyalty and betrayal, church and home.

Fr Joshan Rodrigues