Author: Jane Borges
Pages: 224, Hardcover, Price: Rs. 499
First published in The Book Review – www.thebookreviewindia.org
‘Each time you prepare the balchao masala, think of the person you want to feed it to. If it’s someone you dislike, you might end up being too liberal with your spices. If this person is somebody you love, you will be more careful, especially with your peppercorns and chillies. You don’t want to burn the tongue that has been kind to you.’
Jane Borges’s Bombay Balchao is prepared with love. While the spices are tangy and hot, they do not burn the tongue.
The book begins with a jumble of characters, like a scene from a Mario Miranda sketch. Names that do not roll off the tongue quite so easily, even for someone like me who has had many friends among the Goan and Mangalorean communities. But as you read on, the names and relationships become clearer.
The stories largely revolve around the Coutinho family and its offshoots in the form of neighbours, friends or relatives by marriage. The characters are, for the most part, inhabitants of Bosco Mansion on Dr. D’ Lima street, Cavel; ‘sandwiched between two bustling bazaars in the south of Mumbai… a winding stretch of road, broken on the edges and pockmarked from years of neglect.’
While each of the twelve stories is an independent tale in itself, served up with some wonderful historical context, together they make up the larger offering, turning the book into a novel. Stretched across generations – from 1944 to 2015, these tales are strung together by their simple and down to earth characters. Stories of children, of church bells, of priests and deaths, engagements, marriages, and elopements, of couples coming together and drifting apart, of bootlegging, merrymaking and grieving; every aspect of life as lived by these families.
With each story, you are drawn to these characters, and the book, which seems to start as a light read, suddenly pulls you in. A little boy crying for his father, ‘When Pai come?’ A tale of a lover, dying of heartbreak after every advance is spurned by his lady. A tale of a little boy in love with a girl who enjoyed floating paper boats with him in the rain. Of a little girl who grew up without expressing her love; too proud to admit that he didn’t love her back. Often deep and abiding love, but almost always unrequited, hand in hand with nostalgia. ‘For when it rains, I will take out that crumpled paper boat, yellow and torn at the edges, and sail it through the narrow, muddy stream.’
Another theme that runs through the book is food! Delectable Goan food – freshly baked, warm-from-the-oven paos, a sorpotel to calm down an angry spouse, bangda (mackerel) fry stuffed with recheado masala which kept Aunty Teresa’s homemade wine business going, delicious mutton chops, wafers and cutlets, cake and chips, and chutney sandwiches. A lot of the food comes with little notes on the cleaning and preparation – how to slit and clean the bangda, how to stuff it with the right masala.
Clearly, the author has done her research, and serves up snippets of history – the Bombay dockyard explosion of 1944, the prohibition era with ‘Aunties’ serving home-brewed liquor. She peppers the tales with little historical anecdotes and regales her readers with the difference between the Mangaloreans and Goans, both of whom originated from Goa; as well as the origin of the term East Indians, which had always puzzled me.
Like the subject of her book, Jane Borges uses a language that is light and earthy, reflecting the dialect of her Goan characters. The book is sprinkled with little phrases and terms of endearment in the Goan language. Every now and then you stumble upon a gem – ‘…when you love someone dearly, you allow their truth to take precedence over yours.’
The stories are placed with dates going back and forth and you have to often check back to the beginning of the chapter for the period. The characters are many and incidental remarks introduce others, but none of this interfered with my enjoyment of reading.
Jane Borges’s stories can leave you laughing, crying and sometimes exasperated with the characters. An engrossing book, which you can dive into and spend several happy hours. I did.
The chapter on Ellena Gomes making her mother’s prawn balchao is, of course, the crowning glory of the book. The description of the purchase and cleaning of the prawn, and the preparation of the balchao, with a generous dose of her mother’s wisdom alongside, reads like a paean to life.
‘Why do you worry about the oil? Pickles are anyway supposed to be relished only in small portions. Life is like that, my baby. The best part cannot be enjoyed whole, or it will become too much for you to digest.’ Or, ‘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.’
It is symbolical, that as long as Ellena was incomplete in her relationship she could not cook well but once she came to terms with herself, her cooking became a symphony of love. … ‘A tear trickled down his face. His balchao tasted of pure love.’
And the juice of the ground spices will burst inside you. Jane Borges’s balchao tastes of pure love!