Review: Bombay Balchao by Jane Borges
It is customary for seasoned reviewers to cast a benevolent eye on debut novels or books of verse by young writers. Their faults are sidestepped or exonerated and the positive aspects highlighted. This novel by Jane Borges, a journalist based in Mumbai, doesn’t have too many fault lines, though, in the end, it is something of a mixed bag. It offers up dashes of humour, some touching incidents and a few moments of bewilderment as the reader, at times, needs to switch back and forth to figure out who exactly the author is referring to. This is because too many characters crowd this 250-page novel; characters who often turn up again at a more advanced age.
Most of the narrative is set in Dr Ralph D’Lima Street in Cavel, a predominantly Goan Catholic settlement in Mumbai. Given the many infidelities recounted, Cavel is no Malgudi, but is still portrayed quite charmingly by the author. The colourful cast of characters includes the journalist Michael Coutinho, at first unsuitably married to Merlyn Mascarenhas, an orthodox woman who compulsively follows the 40-day fasting period of Lent and can barely speak English. Later in life, he falls hopelessly in love with Ellena Gomes, a former librarian well versed in the history of Cavel, who, in her young days, was in love with Michael but is spurned by him. The tables are turned when Ellena returns to her old neighbourhood, now threatened by the rapacious ambitions of a builder who wants to put up a skyscraper.
Other dominant characters are Mario Lawrence, jilted at a young age, but who makes a success of himself with his extraordinary ability in composing crossword puzzles for a local newspaper, and his mother Tresa, who, following the death of her husband David Lawrence, a firefighter, who loses his life battling the great fire and explosion at the Victoria Docks in 1944, runs an illegal hooch joint during the Prohibition and after. The cast also includes Michael’s best friend Joe Crasto from Mangalore and Mazagaon, the star singer at the Catholic Gymkhana, who goes on drunken sprees after Benjamin da Cunha, a banjo player, marries Annette, whom Joe loves. Though vile and calculating, his love for Annette is pure, going beyond concupiscence, his bodily needs being satisfied by his lustful wife Rose Maria, a widow 14 years his senior. Crasto dies relatively young of a broken heart. So does Benjamin some years later, also from a cardiac arrest but in a drunken stupor.
There are several other minor players including the mandatory priest, Fr Augustine, a piano virtuoso Thelma D’Costa, and a Parsee lady, Perin, once married to Hubert da Cunha, a philanderer. Perin unexpectedly reappears towards the end of the novel as an elegant grandmother of two children. Lester Fernandes, a famous hockey player, “devastatingly handsome” with a face that could ‘stir unholy cravings within women’ also makes a guest appearance.
The book is laced with so-called ‘Goan’ lingo such as ‘What to tell him?’ ‘What happen, baba? No scared, okay?’ and ‘No shame only you have re’. But thankfully this is not overdone. While this kind of dialogue may be true to some Bombay Goans, it certainly doesn’t reflect the intonations and inflexions prevalent within Goa. The author also sheds light on the differences between East Indians and Goans. While East Indian Catholics were the original sons of the city’s soil, the Goans only migrated in later, looking for much-needed jobs, jobs which were scarce in Portuguese-ruled Goa.
As is evident, the novel is chock-a-block with a variety of players, characters who need a larger canvas for the reader to be gradually exposed to their fortunes and misfortunes. What we have instead is a narrative in permanent fast-forward mode, with the reader trying to keep pace. What comes through successfully, however, is the little township of Cavel, seemingly isolated from the hurly burly of the big city, but living through a life of its own. A spicy balchao of a novel this certainly is, but some tempering and a more gradual expansion of the narrative would have made it more palatable. Indeed, the big, sprawling novel about Goa and Goans, examining its four-and- a-half centuries of Portuguese colonial history, still waits to be written.
Manohar Shetty has published several books of poems including ‘Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017)’. He lives in Goa.