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The Catholics of Cavel

  • Jane Borges’s charming debut novel is set among Mumbai’s Goan and Mangalorean Christian communities
  • ‘Bombay Balchão’ reminds us of the Indian ethos of diversity and harmonious coexistence in the midst of turmoil

Bombay Balchão: By Jane Borges, Westland, 224 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
Bombay Balchão: By Jane Borges, Westland, 224 pages, 499.

In the early decades of the 19th century, Bombay (now Mumbai) became a melting pot of different communities, which landed on its shores in search of shelter and sustenance. Among this motley crowd were Goan and Mangalurean Catholics, who settled in and around the Cavel area of south Bombay, bringing with them their distinctive food, culture, marital traditions and stories.

In her delightful debut novel, Bombay Balchão, Jane Borges immerses herself in this charming microcosm, which retains, to this day, a quaint and foreign flavour, but has also assimilated, over the years, with the city’s rhythm and values. Moving from the 1940s to the 2000s, the book unfolds in short episodic bursts, focused on a curious cast of characters.

A woman is forced to become a bootlegger after her husband is killed in an explosion at the docks; her son develops an addiction to solving crossword puzzles, which, oddly, becomes his salvation. A bitter spinster turns ballistic when she discovers her neighbours siphoning off extra water from a tank; another woman calls in a shaman to exorcise her husband of the ghost of her mother-in-law, who, she believes, is urging him to ruin her beloved chiku tree by plucking the fruit and leaving half-eaten pulp all over the house.

Through cycles of birth and death, matrimony and divorce, love and hate, Borges paints an endearing portrait of two communities—the Goans and Mangalurean settlers—tied by their Christian faith but also inherently different from each other in terms of customs, temperament and aspirations.

A journalist by profession, Borges co-wrote her first book, a non-fiction account of women gangsters of Mumbai, with S. Hussain Zaidi. In her first work of fiction, too, she brings in an aptitude for reporting, research and storytelling. In a political climate increasingly hostile towards minorities, Bombay Balchão reminds us of the ethos of diversity and harmonious coexistence, even in the midst of turmoil, that India has held dear for centuries.

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