If you didn’t know of Sujata Massey’s literary creation, Perveen Mistry, you are missing out on a great literary heroine of our times.
Perveen, the protagonist of Massey’s crime fiction series set in pre-Independence India, is the first Indian female lawyer in Bombay. In the latest novel of the series called The Bombay Prince, Perveen finds a new crime to solve against the backdrop of Prince Edward’s royal visit to India in 1922.
In an exclusive interview, Sujata tells all about creating a strong woman protagonist who has to navigate the colonial codes of conduct juxtaposed with the complex Indian social mores.
Sujata Massey, whose novels have won the Agatha, Lefty, and Macavity awards, and have been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark prizes, talks about her latest book, its inspiration, and the future of the series.
Thank you for this chat, Sujata. I have read all the Perveen Mistry books and love them! For readers who do not know, can you tell us how Perveen came to be?
SM: Thank you for inviting me to chat with India Currents. Perveen Mistry, my fictional character who is born in 1898 Bombay, has a life and personality from my imagination. However, she is inspired by India’s first two women lawyers, both of whom had Oxford educations: Cornelia Sorabji, a solicitor who practiced from the 1890s through 1930s, and barrister Mithan Tata Lam, who practiced in the 1920s, and went on to concentrate on women’s rights legislation in colonial India. Like them, Perveen is Parsi and was born to progressive parents.
As a reader, I have seen Perveen grow as a character. As her creator, how do you think she has changed or adapted?
SM: The series, which starts with The Widows of Malabar Hill, introduces us to a young woman who is appalled by the sexual harassment she experiences in an Indian law school, and initially decides she doesn’t want to study law. So, the beginning of the series starts with one kind of rebellion for Perveen. She eventually returns to law school, and she also swaps her impulsive behavior, for the most part, and develops a cool, pleasant style that she uses when dealing with difficult people.
Perveen knows the laws are stacked against her female clients, and she must figure out ways to get the justice they deserve. She doesn’t break the law; she bends it, and she also manages to open the minds of some men.
In all the books in this series, you touch upon very sensitive subjects like divorce, falling in love with an Englishman, the state of princely states. Tell us about the journey of discovery for you about these social issues during your research.
SM: Originally, I didn’t intend to spend a lot of time on social issues, except to make sure that I was correct in my settings, and to write about typical legal quandaries for families at the time. Then I read Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia, by the legal scholar Mitra Sharafi, and I realized that separate legal codes existed for women of different faiths around marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
For the series anchor book, The Widows of Malabar Hill, I loved the idea of having Perveen study these disparate codes and try to help women of another faith. At the same time, she is trapped by a divorce law that affects her. In later books in the series, Perveen develops a secret and socially unacceptable interest in an Englishman. There were several high-profile Parsi-European affairs and marriages that scandalized society and even resulted in new laws written by the Parsi Panchayat to exclude non-Parsi origin family members from participating in religious events.
Another interesting challenge was trying to get beyond images of movies and general histories to learn about the lives of maharanis and begums connected to India’s princely states. I was very fortunate to know a woman who had lived as a maharaja’s daughter in a small princely state.
You have chosen a fascinating period. In history, we learn so much about the period right before Independence, but the years leading up to it are often forgotten. How did you handle the complexity of the subject of colonization?
SM: When I first started researching the colonial period, I spent time in India. Several Indians explained that the colonial period isn’t highly explored because India has thousands of years of history that are more significant. I also think there may be a wish for the names of the colonial rulers not to be memorialized, and for colonial buildings not to be regarded as beautiful. I think it’s possible to write a series set in colonial times that accepts the truth that there was splendor in colonial buildings and intrigue in the relationships between Indians and the British. Yes, degradation and theft were the backbones of colonization. Showing the colonial world through the eyes of Indian characters who experience this is key.
The Bombay Prince is set against the backdrop of the visit of Prince Edward to India. What made you choose this interesting subject?
SM: I wrote about the 1922 visit because it was a huge event in the early 1920s in India; not because Edward VIII was celebrated, but because it kicked off three days of rioting in Bombay that killed about 50 people and injured more than 500. This was the first big display of anger against the monarchy. The visit also reshaped the freedom movement because the protests involved working-class Hindus and Muslims united for this cause. Mahatma Gandhi was distraught over the violent outcome of his suggested protest of Prince Edward’s visit. Gandhiji wound up calling for all protests to cease, and he undertook his first fast in order to get the violence to cease.
As the winner of multiple historical fiction and mystery awards, what do you think gives women the extra edge to solve mysteries like Perveen does?
SM: Women were powerless in the old days: this is the story we have been told time and time again. Therefore, having a protagonist be a woman striving for justice a hundred years ago is inspiring. Perveen doesn’t let society’s expectations stop her; instead, she sometimes plays on stereotypes of gallantry and religious laws to assist her. Additionally, because of Perveen’s gender, she often has more access to women and children, who are less fearful of her. With their willing cooperation, she’s able to right a few things in a very wrong time.
How can historical fiction add to our understanding of the past, and, in turn, our present?
SM: One of the discriminations Perveen faces in the first book (being separated from family during her menstrual time) has touched many of my women readers, young and old. It also might be the first time my male readers have read anything about menstruation. Another issue that is important to my modern readers is that Perveen delicately navigates how to live a good life while going along with her parents’ wishes.
I also feel it’s valuable to interpret colonialism from an Indian woman’s point of view. Most of the classic colonial fiction only shows Indian women as shadowy and passive characters. In the Perveen books, you see them studying in college, founding orphanages and schools, and fighting for independence because that’s really what happened.
Apart from winning literary awards, the Perveen Mistry books are released in audiobook versions in not only the US and Canada, but in several countries in Europe and Asia. What is next for Perveen?
SM: In 2023, the fourth Perveen novel will be published by Soho Press in New York and a number of publishers around the world. This untitled novel is set in two majority-Gujarati neighborhoods in Bombay and revolves around the struggle for women’s reproductive rights. In colonial India, birth control was illegal, as was abortion. Perveen sees how women, especially the poor, can be trapped by these laws, and of course, she wants to help. Meanwhile, I’m also exploring the possibility of Perveen Mistry coming to the small screen.
Preeti Hay is a freelance writer and editor.