Jane Borges is a Mumbai-based journalist, who currently writes on books, heritage and urban planning for Sunday mid-day, the weekend edition of mid-day newspaper. She has previously co-authored Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands with S. Hussain Zaidi in 2011. She has recently come out with the book “Bombay Balchão”, which is set in Cavel, a tiny Catholic neighbourhood on Bombay’s D’Lima Street. The book, with its cast of eclectic characters, offers the readers a glimpse into the lives of the East Indian, Goan and Mangalorean Catholic communities settled there. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with the author for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about the book, her writing process and the research involved, and why she named her book after the spicy goan balchão.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a Mumbai-based journalist, working for a weekend newspaper where I cover books, heritage and urban planning. This is my first novel, but I’ve previously co-authored the crime non-fiction Mafia Queens of Mumbai with S. Hussain Zaidi.
Please introduce the heritage neighbourhood of Cavel to our readers. Can you tell us about the communities living there, and their history?
Cavel is a centuries-old Catholic neighbourhood in South Mumbai. It was once home to the largest Roman Catholic settlement in Bombay, thanks to the Portuguese missionaries who moved here in the 15th and 16th centuries, and started converting the locals here. They were among the first native Christians. By the turn of 19th century, Goans trickled into the island in search of better opportunities. Since Cavel already had a church (Our Lady of Health), Goans preferred to settle in this neighbourhood. In a matter of years, Cavel was overrun with both Goan Catholics and the natives, who’d eventually call themselves East Indians. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, due to families moving abroad and to the suburbs, the population here has really dwindled, and the neighbourhood has become a shadow of its former glory.
How did the idea for the book emerge? Why did you choose Cavel as the backdrop for the story?
I am a resident of Cavel, and so, the inspiration for the novel came from home. The quirks and eccentricities of the people, the lives they have lived and continue to live, and the sense of community here, have always piqued my interest. Yes, it was easy inspiration. But what was most important was that the neighbourhood was quickly vanishing, and the urgency to tell the story, only grew on me.
There are so many different perspectives of life in Cavel portrayed in the book. How did you find them? What type of research was involved?
I had been living these stories day in and out, so I had a sense of how and where to begin. But, I also spoke to several elderly residents from Cavel, and other Catholic neighbourhoods in the vicinity, who gave me a semblance of the life in Bombay in the 1940 and 50s, the time in which my novel opens. Additionally, I read the works of historians like Teresa Albuquerque, Olga Valladares, and interviewed Bombayphiles to ensure that the historical facts in the novel were as accurate as possible.
We are curious about the title “Bombay Balchão”? When and how did you decide that would be the title of your book? Were there any other contenders?
I had initially planned to name the novel, Miracle on D’Lima Street, because the book opens with the story of a miracle. But balchão, an idea suggested by my brother, felt like a more fitting title. Balchão is a Goan masala made with red chillies, spices and vinegar, and is used to prepare fish pickles. It has a sharp spicy and tangy flavour, quite representative of the quirks of my own characters. And just like a pickle that is left to marinate in its own spices, the characters of my novel, which spans over 70 years, also evolve with time. Some degenerate, and some become better versions of themselves.
Apart from telling the stories of characters drawn from the idiosyncrasies of people who lived and died in Cavel, the book is also rife with the theme of the fast-disappearing lifestyles of East Indian, Goan Catholic and Mangalorean communities and gentrification of their South Mumbai neighbourhood. What made you incorporate such a theme in your work?
Since I am Catholic, and have both Goan as well as Mangalorean roots, the connection was immediate. At least in urban India, culture and community have become secondary, because our work lives have taken priority. Living as we do today, I see these connections with our roots slowly disappearing and felt compelled to write about it. Also, Cavel, which once was a quaint neighbourhood, has become a real estate gold mine, because of the coming in of the underground Metro right across the road. Skyscrapers are appearing (almost haphazardly) everywhere. Today, there are only a handful of old buildings in this area now. Revisiting the Cavel of yore, was one way of keeping it alive, even if through a story.
Can you say more about the structure of the book? It reads more like a short story collection with the central character being Michael Coutinho. Each story goes back and forth, which drops us into the seemingly interconnected lives of the characters. The first story begins in December 2015, taking us back to 1944 when the community had gathered for Christmas Mass. The last story dates to June 2010. Why did you go for such kind of structure and not a full-fledged novel?
It’s a full-fledged novel, which has only been treated differently in structure. I always wanted it to be non-linear, because it allows the reader to have control over how it is read. You can read the chapters in any order that you wish, and still not feel very lost. While every chapter reads like a short story, each one of them also has hidden clues to the motivations of the characters in the other. So, none of the chapters exist in isolation. It’s like a puzzle that you are trying to solve, as you read.
The book is filled with gastronomic delights and the title is also named after the spicy Goan pickle. Which are your favourite cuisines? Is there a Goan dish that you particularly relish?
I really love prawn balchão; it’s best relished with dal and rice, or with pao. I also tried making it once, and recreated that experience in one of the later chapters.
‘Bombay Balchão’ by Jane Borges has been published by Tranquebar/ Westland Publications. Read more about the book and buy it here.