Experimental novel | Reviews

Old city, lingering flames: Review of Jane Borges’ ‘Bombay Balchão’

Borges serves up a delectable Bombay version of balchão in her maiden novel

They forgot that they were characters in a novel, not a short story. In this novel, every chapter was connected to the others. And retribution was not too far away.”

One could argue about the fairness of the retribution Borges extracts from her well-crafted characters over 70-odd years, from the 1940s to 2015. One could well read each chapter as a short story that attains closure on a singular narrative thread, leaving one amused, sad, or just plain wistful. But one would be mistaken.

There is no clear beginning, nor a distinct linear end, but once Father Augustine Fernandez “catches fire” at a momentous Christmas Eve mass in a quintessential Bombay Christian neighbourhood’s local chapel, Borges has you reeled in, hook, line and sinker. And the web she weaves stretches wider than the confines of a chapter or even the realm of this book.

As the priest rushes out of the chapel to douse the fire, the clouds burst into an unlikely spell of December rain — a ‘Christmas miracle’ that enthrals the community. The priest doesn’t see it that way, but plays along... his secret eventually known only to Michael Coutinho, who comes closest to what you may call a protagonist. That 1945 night in the small community chapel, sparks also fly between adolescent Michael and his first love Tracey D’Lima, re-united briefly amidst the frenzy over the priest’s flaming liturgical vestment.

On Valentine’s Day, three decades later, the priest returns to preside over a twisted turn of events, including an unanticipated funeral. Love lingers throughout, sometimes stillborn; lost, found; found only to be lost; but mostly just meandering along, as it usually does. Above the gripping plot lines, this maiden fiction effort is really about the charms of an old city with a rich past, lost to today’s nuclear, concrete Mumbai.

Balchão is known as a fiery, almost picklish delicacy from Goa. With its endearing well-researched garnishes — be it the typing courses at Davar’s College, the logistics of hooch supplies during Prohibition, the hierarchies within the city’s Roman Catholic community, or a photo studio that Subhash Chandra Bose visited — this improvised prawn version of Bombay Balchão leaves you yearning for more.

vikas.dhoot@thehindu.co.in

Bombay Balchão; Jane Borges, Tranquebar, ₹499

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 6:51:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/old-city-lingering-flames-review-of-jane-borges-bombay-balcho/article30644318.ece

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