Bombay Balchão — Dig into the Quirks, Follies, and Rich History of an Eccentric Goan community in Mumbai
As a Goan born and raised in the suburbia of Bombay, I knew little and had experienced even less, the peculiarities of a typical Goan community. My thirst to understand and to partake in a community of shared values, where one felt a sense of belonging and comfort, something that is proudly exhibited by the inhabitants of native Goa or Goenkars as many prefer to call themselves, only intensified, but was only ever insufficiently satiated through the fragments of memories that my mother narrated sometimes while cooking a curry in the kitchen or holding a cup of sweet, milky tea on a late Sunday afternoon. That’s where all the familiarization with a culture I had only ever admired from the outside, and which made me a feel like an outsider (to the extent that I began to call myself a pseudo-Goan), usually ended.
So imagine my fascination when I came across the author @janeborges and her book Bombay Balchao on an episode from the podcast, Books and Beyond. Like most podcast listeners, I stretched my pea-sized attention span to listen to this episode on the one hand, and finish off my chores, on the other. But I suddenly caught myself focusing deeply as Jane Borges shares her inspiration behind her latest book Bombay Balchão, how she became an inhabitant of Cavel, the catholic neighbourhood that all short stories in her novel are woven around, and why Goans, Mangloreans, and East Indians have always been at loggerheads.
Soon I got my hands on a copy of the book and instead of swallowing it whole like I’ve done with so many others, I decided to savour it, one chapter at a time. In fact I used it as a reward at the end of each work day to restore balance to the endless work from home cycle. Stories from Bombay Blachao are grounded and reaching for the stars, with characters possessing simple and complex feelings of jealousy, love, affection, hatred, frustration, while most are completely unaware of them, making it not just an interesting read, but forcing us to look inward, deep into unexplored worlds of our own psyche.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Set in Cavel, a quaint little Catholic community in Bombay on Dr. D’Lima street, this book is a fascinating portrayal of transforming traditions, eccentric characters, and real experiences divided into multiple short stories, that make for an easily-digestible read, and keep you hooked for more. Unlike other character journeys, here’s a set of stories that revolves around the evolution or rather, slow death of a community with a rich history and an infinite treasure trove of memories, bursting with the joie de vivre of a typical group of Goan Catholics. From expelling ghosts in a Chiku tree to surreptitiously installing a water pipe, Bombay Balchao is spicy, tangy, and even peppered with light-hearted humour and forbidden feelings that most of us won’t acknowledge, be it lust or murderous rage.
ABOUT JANE BORGES
Let’s talk about Jane Borges a bit, the author who resurrects the Cavel community with a fresh perspective and oodles of charm. Branded as “Habitual Writer. Passionate Storyteller. Occasional Traveller. Perpetual Dreamer” on her blog, A PEN, A PAPER & ME, Jane Borges is thorough in her research, a trait she acquired from her vast journalism portfolio, but is also an intuitive writer who draws from her experiences and interactions with the people she interviews. You may have heard of her or read some of her interesting features in the Mid Day newspaper or experienced first-hand, her semi-fictional writing in Mafia Queens of Mumbai, which she co-authored with Hussain Zaidi. Not only was a chapter from that book was adapted for the big screen (yet to release in 2021), but more recently, Jane Borges’ literary agent announced that her book Bombay Balchao is also signed for screen adaptation by a leading production company.
MY FAVOURITE STORY
Stories from Bombay Blachao possess not just a delectable punch of humour but also plenty heartfelt emotions. But none are as heart-wrenching as the story of young Mario Lawrence, who was unable to communicate how he felt most times, but possessed extraordinary artistic and literary abilities. The loss he experiences during the explosion and the great fire at the Victoria Docks in 1944, which also coincided with his birthday, is painful to read and enough to move the stoniest hearts to tears. This experience coupled other unfortunate events later in his life stunt his artistic growth for the longest time, only to be reversed when he lands his first job in his fifties with the help of his faithful friend and the protagonist of the book, Michael Coutinho.
BONUS — SECOND FAVOURITE STORY
Picking the best story, from Bombay Balchao is akin to choosing one item from a platter of your most desired delicacies — it is impossible! Therefore, I took the liberty to choose another one. This time it is a story called Dearest Butterfly, With Love, which comprises of a series of epistolary conversations between Michael Coutinho and Ellena Gomes. Not only is this chapter different because it is presented in the form of letters, but it also breaks away from the usual discord that Michael and Ellena seem to exhibit while in the presence of each other. For most part of it, this exchange seems hopeful of something new and exciting. But to quote something from an earlier chapter,
“(It) had all the ingredients to turn not into an excellent dish. But alas, what can be said of anything that holds great promise? Can it ever match up to the aromas that teased your taste buds?”
Both Michael and Ellena are strong characters with clashing personalities. Resentments, jealousy, bitterness brewing through the years won’t cool down with a few friendly letters. But this is a beginning, nonetheless; whether love and friendship will blossom or burn, is left to the reader’s interpretation even in the last chapter of the book where the lonely Ellena struggles to cook up a great prawn balchao, missing only in one ingredient –love. Lorna, who was her maid while Ellena escaped to Pernem in Goa, exclaims, “Where is your heart? Oho aunty, bring some love into your cooking”.
As we near the end of the book, we see an intense resistance to change, the deep urge to cling on to the greener looking past, exhibited not just in the stories and the inhabitants of beloved Cavel, but the very idea that the author is writing a novel that tries to save the story of a dying community, on the brink of extinguishing its past.
“It has reared several treasures. Bombay’s famous D’Lima, the most renowned architects, engineers, bakers, brave firefighters like my father and newspaper editors came from this building. It’s a jewel in the crown of the city. You think we will allow it to disappear just like that?”
- Mario, Chapter 12, Bombay Balchao
Today, Cavel is but a shadow of what it once was, unlike the rest of the city, that has evolved, learnt to embrace changing times, and get consumed whole. Nonetheless, Jane Borges’ passionate and light-hearted storytelling of Cavel, which was once the largest Roman Catholic neighbourhood in Bombay in the 18th century, brings new light and youthfulness to the community.
Though plentifully humorous, and actively ridiculing human follies, the stories from Bombay Balchao also explore unpleasant emotions of unrequited love, heartbreak, loss, death, and abandonment, all of which, ironically, make their way on the happiest of occasions –birthdays (the explosion at the Bombay docks), engagements (when Joe Crasto lost the love of his life), or the Christmas mass celebration in Chapter 1 (the death of Michael’s childhood sweetheart, Tracey).
I could be biased. I may be overly appreciative. I might even understand and empathize with the characters more than a non-Goan would. When you hail from a community that you don’t know much about or don’t have too many personal experiences, (my mother has, however, on numerous occasions recounted her summer vacations in Goa, the big clay pots used for cooking sorpotel, balchao, and everything else, the winter yule ball, sleeping under the stars during the summers) you want your bread of a heart to soak up all the cultural flavours that you never had.
For me, this book creates nostalgia where there never were any memories. I get so immersed in the lives of the residents of this little addo that I can recollect these stories as if they were part of my own reality, my memories, my pain and my happiness.
My pandemic survival kit comprises mainly of good food and great books. How often do you find a book that combines both to induce nostalgia irrespective of whether you’ve lived the memories yourself or vicariously through its characters?
Go read it and know for yourself. You can buy it here. If you live in Bombay (Thane) and want to borrow this book for a while, let me know; I’ll be glad to briefly part with it, if it can make you as happy as it made me.