Mumbai, or Bombay as it was once known, has a Christian memory. This needs pointing out because it is not among the frequently consulted or talked about whenever the city is mentioned in Bollywood or even the fiction produced about the city. Jane Borges’s debut novel Bombay Balchão—a story or a set of stories set between the 1940s and 2015 in Cavel, a Christian locality in the heart of the city—enjoyably engages with this memory.
The first chapter is written in the first person voice of Michael; all others deal with other families and characters in the locality with Michael making minor and major appearances. This apparently loose structure helps readers get to know the characters and households in all their quirkiness:
There were days when Annette sounded just like her mum. Her mannerisms, her opinions, how she quibbled and the way she spoke, ending sometimes with ‘men’ – a word that has been part of the Goan lexicon since time immemorial and used for punctuating effect instead of a comma, full-stop, exclamation or question mark – and the way she looked down at people from the pedestal of perfection, everything reminded Michael of his mother. And now here she was, losing her mind, just like Karen.
The characters live in routine situations—falling in and out of love, getting or not getting married, earning a livelihood, sometimes talking to ghosts, sometimes summoning witch doctors to get rid of a ghost. In her light ways, Borges fits all of these realities between, on the one hand, a sense of scandal steeped in neighborhood legends and rumors, and references to histories that reach back 400 years or more on the other.
When Perin Irani, the fair lady from Dadar Parsi Colony, moved to Cavel, a lot of hearts had skipped multiple beats. She was quite literally a beauty from another world. The obsession with white skin – paklos, as fair-skinned people were called in Konkani – was a trait that came with being Indian and most importantly, Goan. It wouldn’t have otherwise taken the Portuguese four hundred years to leave the Indian Catholic heartland.
Borges’s invocation of history is a very special intervention in the genre of city writing, especially of Mumbai. The origin narratives about the city tend to revolve around the fisherfolk as the first inhabitants of the city from the times when the Portuguese sovereign passed on the city as dowry to the British. While the British architecture and history loom large on the city, the Portuguese tidbits in this novel make for a refreshing read.
The balchão in the title is a recipe that the Portuguese passed on to the Goans (the Portuguese controlled the southwestern state for quite some time after Indian independence in 1947). Borges takes the concept of the pickle recipe and turns it into a metaphor for living:
‘How is it that the balchão lasts so long, mama?’ Ellena had asked.
‘It’s the vinegar. It not only adds a sharp flavor to the pickle but is also a natural preservative. It will keep your balchão forever.’
‘But no food can last forever, mama,’ Ellena had exclaimed.
‘Nothing lasts forever, baby, but it also depends on what your forever is. Is it a day? Is it a month? Is it a year? We make our own forevers.’
Through Cavel, Bombay Balchão contributes significantly to the collective memory of the city in the way it touches upon significant events that the city has experienced and survived—the Bombay Dock explosion in 1944, the Prohibition, the Emergency of the late 1970s, and the recent meddling by the real estate players eyeing the heritage properties in the city. For weaving these episodes into the innocence of citizens’ preoccupation with their immediate lives, it will remain an unforgettable novel for a long time.