‘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.