In Jane Borges’ ‘Bombay Balchão’, the city comes alive with old-world charm, quirky characters, and unique flavours
Bombay Balchão, journalist Jane Borges’ debut novel, is all about a Bombay (now Mumbai) that’s fast disappearing beneath towering skyscrapers and a vastly expanding cityscape.
Jane Borges' Bombay is in Cavel, a small Catholic neighbourhood, home to the East Indians, Goan Catholics, and Mangaloreans who rule the roost at Bosco Mansion (and other similar landmark buildings).
The characters in her novel, Bombay Balchão, are full of little quirks and idiosyncrasies, but are relatively loveable despite their shortcomings, insecurities, and petty fights. The buildings are decrepit, water is rationed, a chikoo tree is fought over… the book is full of little insights into the lives of different households – the sister-brother Coutinhos, the hooch-maker Tresa, the Crossword king Mario, and so many others who find a place in our lives.
For they are “real” in every sense, aware of their fallacies and not apologetic about them.
At the heart of the novel is a series of letters between Michael Coutinho and Ellena G that teach us that though some relationships are never meant to be, they still retain a magic that is ethereal and affectionate.
In an interview with HerStory, Jane Borges’ speaks about the premise of the book, old Bombay, and the migrant life.
HerStory: This is your debut novel. You had earlier written a part-biographical book with Hussain Zaidi - Mafia Queens of Mumbai. Why did this one take so long?
Jane Borges: I always knew I wanted to write fiction, but I didn't want to force a second book. So, instead, I let life happen to me. Between Mafia Queens and Bombay Balchão, I completed my master’s in English literature; moved to Muscat briefly and worked with a newspaper there; returned to Mumbai again and joined Mid-Day; and also travelled three continents.
Somewhere, between all of this, the idea of this novel came by. But I took my time with it, because I was very invested in my job. I think the pace also helped me think more clearly about the kind of story I wanted to tell.
HS: The title of the book, Bombay Balchão, though explained in length in the last chapter forms the essence of life in Cavel. How did you think of this title and what does this dish mean to you?
JB: The name for the book happened by accident. Initially, I meant to go with "miracle" in the title, because the first chapter has a story that revolves around that. But I wasn't convinced, neither was my literary agent Anish Chandy. When I had written about seven chapters (the book has 12), Anish started pitching it to publishers and asked me to think of a tentative title. My brother and I brainstormed and came up with this one, because my characters felt like a balchão, a Goan preserve used to prepare a fish dish. The spicy and tangy flavours of the masala, were in a way, a reflection of the traits of the characters in my book. Strangely, it's this title that led me to the last chapter, where the balchão becomes a very significant element in the plot.
HS: Is the setting of the book, Cavel in South Bombay, inspired by a real-life location?
JB: Yes, it is. There is a real Cavel that exists in South Mumbai. And like my fictional one, it's also sandwiched between two very busy bazaars and was once home to prominent residents, who contributed to the city in many ways, be it sports, governance, music, health or education.
The idea behind writing this book was to start a conversation about fast disappearing Christian neighbourhoods, and the many different lives its residents lived. Amnesia is a cruel thing. You forget what should have been preserved.
HS: You have effectively captured the migration of Goans/Mangaloreans to Bombay and their lives in the city through different timeframes. You are a Bombay girl yourself.... how close is your life to that of a migrant's?
JB: The Catholic community has seen different kinds of migrations, and at different points in time. I wanted to talk about how migration affects people and their relationship with each other. It gave the Goans and Mangaloreans a different identity. Today, families are moving abroad or to the suburbs, and that kind of migration is affecting neighbourhoods, isolating these pockets. My family has shared a migratory history similar to the characters of my book. Both my grandparents (maternal/paternal) moved to Bombay in the 1930s, from their respective villages in Karnataka and Goa. My father lived in Oman for over three decades, and we joined him briefly, before we decided to settle in Mumbai. So yes, that shift and movement has been happening constantly.
HS: How did you study the lingo of the characters? Is it spoken the same way even today?
JB: I don't think I studied it; I just observed. Living in a Catholic neighbourhood and being raised as one, only made it easier. Language is identity, too, and it helps distinguish one kind of people from another. It wasn't difficult at all to capture voices that were around me, and in my head.
HS: According to you, what characters form the heart of the book and why?
JB: While there is no real protagonist in the book, I think Michael Coutinho is really the sutradhar of this novel. He has a relationship with every single character in the novel, and is a recurring character in each chapter. He helps stitch it all together.
HS: Growing up in the city, can you explain how it has evolved over time and yet still retained some of its qualities, which in your opinion no other city has?
JB: I didn't grow up here. I was raised in Muscat and spent the first 16 years there. My family moved back in 2003. But the city and my quaint neighbourhood, in particular, have transformed in the last 15-odd years. The charm the city once had is slowly vanishing under the towering skywalks; thanks to the underground Metro, even the ground beneath our feet is shaky.
HS: The letters between Michael and Ellena in the book are almost magical - they speak of an unrequited love clothed in everyday, mundane happenings. Yet they are also full of warmth. What did you seek to convey through these letters?
JB: I just wanted to experience how two old people fall in or out of love, or how they respond to that feeling, if at all. You read it, and think what an idiot that Michael is, or why Ellena is so impulsive. But, we are all of this in our real lives. I wanted to make a case for lovers, both stupid and mature, and hence, the letters.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)
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