Tag Archives: book review

The Henna Artist Empowers Women

I had been looking forward to a book event planned for March 31st at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park. Author, Alka Joshi, was to speak about her debut novel The Henna Artist.

And then of course, like numerous other events, it was canceled. As March began, it became increasingly clear that life as we know it was changing.

With this cloud hanging over all our heads, I welcomed the opportunity to pick up The Henna Artist. The image on the cover is attractive and inviting. A woman walking under some decorated arches in what may be a palace in Rajasthan, with ornate chandeliers visible above. In the inner flap, the picture of the author is lovely – a striking composition of gray, red, and blue.

This eloquent, engaging novel is the story of Lakshmi Shastri, a strong woman who seizes her independence out of an abusive marriage and a life of poverty, by slowly climbing the ladder of security with rungs built by hard work, creativity, and determination.

Born in a village in Uttar Pradesh to an educated father turned alcoholic after being slighted by the British and a helpless mother, Lakshmi reluctantly leaves her home when her marriage is arranged to an abusive and violent man. She grows to love his mother, her Saasuji, who teaches her how to heal with herbs. 

Eventually, she cannot bear it anymore and runs away, bringing shame upon her parents and the village where she grew up.  Joshi has an eloquent passage on this concept of family honor.

From UP to Agra to Jaipur, Lakshmi finally settles and is embraced by Samir Singh, an architect, and his wife, Parvati, who become patrons of her art (henna) and healing. Through Parvati’s introductions, Lakshmi meets members of the royal family – two maharanis. Lakshmi’s success with herb treatments also captures the attention of Samir’s friend Dr. Jay Kumar, a doctor trained in Western medicine.

One day, a 14-year old girl, Radha, arrives at her doorstep – a sister she never knew she had. Radha’s arrival complicates Lakshmi’s carefully constructed world. As with any teenager, Radha’s eagerness to absorb all the new experiences combined with her innocence leads to complicated circumstances.

All through the book, Joshi’s detailed descriptions of the characters, their appearance, surroundings, and their state of mind are evocative and paint an engaging portrait. The high points in Lakshmi’s timeline bore captivating descriptions of lavish lifestyles, elegant homes, palaces, and extravagant parties. When her luck turns, the places she frequents are increasingly dreary, with poignant descriptions. 

Here are a few lines of what she sees on her way to the palace for the first time.

The descriptions of nature, birds, and their movements are quite lovely.

Motherhood is a theme that permeates the book. There are many mothers in the story. Lakshmi’s helpless mother in her village. Her mother-in-law, Saasuji, whom she loves and reveres, having learned about healing from her. Once discovering that Lakshmi has run away, Saasuji checks her money and herbs, and discovers that they are gone. “Shabash,” she exclaims. “Well done,” capturing in a word her wishes and aspirations for her daughter-in-law, to build her own life.

There are women longing for motherhood, who seek Lakshmi’s help following one miscarriage after another. There are women who wish to avoid motherhood, using Lakshmi’s herbs to prevent conception or terminate a pregnancy. There are women who become pregnant by choice or by accident, unintentional/accidental mothers, whose circumstances make it impossible for them to keep the child. There is a mother whose child has been removed from her due to the father’s superstitious fear that the child would cause his death. All the characters are portrayed with compassion and varied as their circumstances and choices are, nobody is demonized. Not even Hari, the abusive husband.

The book is sprinkled with quotes and references to English literature. Lakshmi’s father was an English teacher and both his daughters, Lakshmi and Radha, have absorbed his love of books. We interact with Shakespeare, poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Eyre, and even Lady Chatterley’s lover. Dr. Jay Kumar quotes Dickens in one of his letters to Lakshmi, from the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities: “…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.” Perhaps the Anglophilia is representative of the post-Independence era in which the book is set; it was, after all, only a few decades later that Salman Rushdie would burst into the literary world and plop Indian writing in English firmly on the literary map.

I was thrown off by the transliteration of some Indian words. The words for daughter and son are ordinarily written as Beti and Beta, but here they are written as Behti and Behta. The core of Hindu philosophy is the Bhagavad Gita; oddly, here it is spelled as the Bahagvad Gita. Twice. In my experience transliteration is tied closely to pronunciation in the original script. These transliterations are not drawn from the Devanagari script with which I am most familiar. For me, these were odd choices of spelling and gave me pause. I wondered if they were typos but they appear a few times throughout the book.

This is a story of two worlds: one of the immensely wealthy, who move in clubs and palaces, with numerous staff to cook, clean, shop; and one of the service class, the ones who cook, clean, shop, apply henna, dye hair, offer herbal home remedies. The Henna Artist brings both worlds to life, allowing the reader to move between them and glimpse into both with ease.

There are a few interesting, informative, and even amusing sections provided as appendices – henna and its history, a henna recipe from Radha, and a Rabri recipe from the royal palace. 

There is also a section on caste. While the characters are described as belonging to various castes, the daily injustices and injuries of which Joshi writes, struck me more as socio-economic. The difference between the haves and the have-nots. Except for a passing mention of caste regarding the installation of WCs (water closets/toilets), it isn’t woven into the narrative. 

Also, while the story is set in the 1950s, post-independence Jaipur with historical touches add flourishes to the story, it is not a historical account. The strength of its book lies not as much on historical accuracy or any in-depth portrayal of caste differences, but in the engaging story and the well-developed characters.

Joshi thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments section, and notes that her mother, married at 18 and a mother of two by 22, inspired the story. A beautiful tribute indeed. I’m sure her mother is proud.

When we get out of this COVID-19 crisis, I hope Alka Joshi and The Henna Artist get the book tour they deserve. I sure look forward to seeing her at Kepler’s someday.

In the meantime, Kepler’s of Menlo Park is hosting an online event with writer Alka Joshi on her book “The Henna Artist” on Wednesday, May 27th at 7:00pm. Learn more about the event and sign up here to listen to Alka Joshi in conversation with journalist, Angie Coiro.

Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area, and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published. 

Black and White Are Not Colors

The second-generation Bengali woman known as Mother in Devi S. Laskar’s emotionally raw debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, is forty-three years, six months, twenty-five days old when an unexpected, swift, and tragic chain of events transpires. Upon returning home from dropping her three young daughters at school, agents storm her house, she refuses to remain silent, then she finds herself lying on her driveway in an Atlanta suburb, bleeding from gunshot wounds. On the concrete, Mother zigzags through a montage of memories, leaping between present and past, recalling a lifetime of slights, taunts, comments, and snubs by society, wondering what in her life led her to this point. Now police, neighbors, and news crews work around her as if she weren’t there, solidifying the invisibility Mother has felt all her life. 

A woman of color, a wife, and a mom, Mother also is a former crime reporter, demoted to part-time obituary writer, and a novelist-in-waiting, her dreams never quite holding strong enough against those ubiquitous slights and snubs. Her husband, known as her Hero, the Man of the Hour, or Daddy—an American blonde with blue eyes—loves her but travels internationally for work and is rarely home long enough to notice her extreme isolation. Only Greta, the family’s late dog, offers Mother unconditional love and protects her.

To protect her children, Mother teaches them “the quiet game,” one in which one’s thoughts and feelings are kept to oneself. Mother is the master of the game, and she teaches her daughters to keep their heads down and stay completely still and silent in the face of discrimination, to take the abuse, to not cause trouble. Concurrently, the people in her neighborhood are seen and heard from a distance, her colleagues are mostly passersby, and only Mr. Patel, a shopkeeper, speaks to her without criticizing, asking why she is there, or suggesting she go back to where she came from. Ironically, like the author, Mother was born and raised in North Carolina. 

“Atlas” is a powerful story of the unacceptable, unforgivable treatment persons of color—especially women—are forced to endure even now in the twenty-first century. Vivid and honest in her pain during which she sees the blue sky and as voices laugh and joke about her, she is every woman in her desire to have a good life and one in which she is an equal; however, the equality to which she aspires carries a weightier load because her skin color—one so disparate from the neighborhood’s whiteness—prevents fulfillment of that simple, common wish. 

Despite not unfolding the offending incident linearly or in detail, it is disturbing, nonetheless. Laskar’s poetic precision gives us enough to be shocked, angered, left with much to consider and contemplate. Her writing’s beautiful lyricism juxtaposes the compactness of language with the prevailing ugliness of the world in which Mother and we live. The book, based on an incident that occurred at Laskar’s own home, never discusses racism, but the incidents in Mother’s short life offer abundant fuel for discussions that society must undertake. The Atlas of Reds and Blues is simply a must-read.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects.

THE ATLAS OF REDS AND BLUES by Devi S. Laskar. Counterpoint Press. 269 Pages.


The Link in the Linguistic Chain

Language is fluid, and anyone who has successfully made it to adulthood has experienced slang growing into accepted usage and accepted usage shifting as new verbal practices infiltrate conversation and the written word. Such is the conundrum India has encountered since the British East India Company carried out the will of its crown. In her engaging, entertaining, and educational book, An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local, Kalpana Mohan cleverly mixes pieces of India’s history with an examination into how England introduced its language as a weapon, how English morphed into a tool for advancement and became the link between languages, and how what once was meant to separate eventually resulted in a near-unifying, powerful “Indian English.”

As much a joyful travel narrative as an informal treatise into language, Mohan crisscrosses India, speaking with myriad fascinating individuals for whom language is important apart from casual conversation. Her sources include a now-retired BBC journalist born in India to English parents; an outspoken filmmaker; a young activist poet; a South Indian princess whose family has spoken English for two centuries; and school principals who see the advantages a command of the English language offers to students seeking careers. Those with whom she seeks audience are young and old, student and sage, knighted and common man, all hopeful and wary about the future of English language influence in India.

With leading voices in English literature, philosophy, science, and the arts available to her, Mohan discusses a variety of topics with enthusiasm and an open mind: education in English as an expected equalizer; oddities of English vs. Indian language syntax; and words absorbed into English while English invaded Indian languages. She notes that matrimonials have their own coded brand of English. Indian English utilizes co-opted, remade-to-fit words that amplify understanding. The debate involving English vs. American English goes hand in hand with “Hinglish” in advertising to speak to younger consumers. In all these corridors of investigation, Mohan’s desire to learn or confirm is omnipresent and rewarding.

Mohan, who fell in love with English as a means of expression when she was young, conducted her unscientific-but-broadminded research on several levels, covering as much ground as possible for her 218-page volume. Across the cultural strata, she studied linguistic scholars; reflected on her own personal lifetime of reading; and participated in the conversations mentioned above. Additionally, as support for her traditional research, Mohan includes 139 source notes.

While Mohan’s voice is pleasant to read as she condenses histories, backstories, and information, her writing shines most resplendently when she shares her epiphanies about English in India—for what is more exciting than discoveries made while exploring?—and when sharing stories containing the use of English encountered while spending time with people dear to her heart: her family’s chauffeur Vinayagam and housekeeper Ganga.

Linguist David Crystal believes that the give and take of English and Indian languages, Mohan writes, “was possible only because of the inherent flexibility of the English language to absorb the colour of every language and culture it encountered.” In Kalpana Mohan’s accomplished hands, what could have devolved into a dry and lifeless dissertation was instead a lively, colorful, and oft-amusing adventure into something so many merely take for granted.

An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local by Kalpana Mohan. Aleph Book Company. 218 Pages.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 

The Light Side of Music

‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’ (Speaking Tiger Books, 2019) is Hindustani classical musician Shubha Mudgal’s first attempt at fiction. The book is a collection of seven heartwarming stories about Indian classical music set against a contemporary backdrop. In the acknowledgements, Mudgal summarizes that “humor camouflages the inevitable sadness that often casts a shadow over the lives of artists.”

While the stories talk about the music business from the perspective of the media, diplomacy and the diaspora, it also addresses it from the country’s heartland—its small towns and villages. The stories subtly delve into how classical music in India has evolved over the years due to various external influences and the struggle among its practitioners of  traditional and modern schools of thought. 

The following is a short summary of five of the vignettes from ‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’.

‘Aman Bol’ is a spoof on The Times of India’s real-life 2010 campaign with The Jang Group. This story involves musical collaborations between artists from two neighboring countries. The story presents a humorous side to all that went on behind the scenes to put together this publicity stunt–a ‘concert of peace.’ 

‘Foreign Returned’, on the politics of foreign tours in the music industry, shows how Indians living in the US perceive Hindustani classical music. The story also touches on some delicate, modern-day challenges that the art is facing, such as clashes between gurus and their shishyas. 

‘Taan Kaptaan’ focuses on a small-town musician who gets into the big, bad world of showbiz once he enters a partnership with a big businessman during a musical talent hunt. When he is duped, he has to, literally, ‘face the music’. 

‘A Farewell to Music’ is about a music label looking to reestablish itself as the country’s number one label. The story highlights how Hindustani classical music is being distorted in the present day, due to a conflict in ideologies between the traditionalists and young musicians, who are experimenting with music and altering it to fit the tastes of current listeners. 

‘Manzoor Rehmati’ is a story revolving around an average harmonium player who meets an influential Ustad in a quest to receive a Padma Shri award. The story sheds light on the prevailing lobbies that act to push for the prestigious national honor. 

While reading the book, it is evident that Mudgal is writing about so many people whom she may have possibly encountered and worked with during her long and illustrious career as a Hindustani classical musician. They all come together and make up an interesting cast of characters in this witty book that could even make for a fun Bollywood potboiler!

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul,’ an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

Yoga Mythology: 64 Asanas by Devdutt Pattanaik and Matthew Rulli

Bestselling Indian author (53 books and counting), celebrity, media personality and self-styled mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik has partnered with American yoga teacher Matthew Rulli to produce his latest book. The book opens with an Authors’ Note containing the disclaimers: “This is not a book on the practice of yoga. This is about the mythology that nurtured the idea of yoga” and “This is not a manual for asanas.” Reading on, we are told: “This book uses various yoga postures as inspiration to leap into the world of Hindu mythology with occasional detours into Jain and Buddhst mythology.” (17)

The book is organized in four sections, dedicated to the Devi, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, with 64 asanas and related stories distributed among them. (The number sixty-four, we are told, indicates infinity). Stories are drawn from Buddhist and Jain sources, though those from Hindu culture, not surprisingly, predominate.

Clearly, the authors have done their research. They include some poses familiar to the average yoga student, several that are probably unfamiliar to all but advanced practitioners, a handful (crocodile, vajrasana, dandasana) that sound familiar but are presented in unusual and challenging versions, and poses largely named for sages. A good number in this last category, known as “party poses” in some yoga circles for their flashy “Look at this!” quality, involve bearing weight through the arms while doing something complicated with the legs, such as wrapping one leg behind the head. As a yoga teacher, I know that arm balances come more easily to men than to women, due to the superior upper-body strength and higher center of gravity of the average male body. I think of these as these definitely “guy poses” even though they can be and are also performed by women. I also know that the majority of students in most classes are women. So the inclusion of all those arm balances made me go “Hmm,” and I found myself wondering just who the intended audience was. Given American yoga’s emphasis on asana, and the challenging nature of the “party poses,” will this selection really inspire readers to “leap into the world of Hindu mythology”?

The book has much more going for it than the poses. Don’t be put off by the ones you find obscure or too challenging. Let the stories and their values enhance your appreciation of India’s rich culture and yoga’s diverse nature. The stories are engaging and the line drawings are charming, energetic and plentiful. (In fact, I wished for drawings to replace the small black and white photos which don’t always show the poses to best advantage.) The inclusion of Jain and Buddhist tales expands our habitual notion of yoga as “Hindu” while the concluding section, “Metaphors of the Yogini”, forces us to confront the image of the yogi as a male ascetic bent on controlling or escaping the natural world. “Yoginis are the food for the hungry, the power for the frightened, and the knowledge of the ignorant…They are all things uncontrollable that we want to control…The yogi looks within; hence shuthis eyes. The yogini makes him open his eyes, look at the sky…” (322-323)

I’ve been a fan of Devdutt’s since I chanced upon his Shiva: an Introduction (1997) in a Mumbai bookstore. I was eager to see how he would handle yoga mythology.  I find that what I like most in this book is not so much the connection of stories with asana, but his discussions of the feminine, through the figures of the Devi and the yogini. Fan or new reader, I am sure you will find things you like too.

Zo Newell is a writer and certified yoga therapist. Her first book, Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis was published in 2007 and its sequel, Flying Monkeys, Floating Stones: More Wisdom Tales, is slated for publication in spring 2020. She has written numerous articles for Yoga International exploring the interface of asana and Indian mythology. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University.

Settled & Unsettled: A Reflection in Migration’s Mirror

Literary writing is a mirror of sorts; it enables you to see yourself in its pages.  

For the first 20 years of my life, I had never read a book that reflected my life as an Indian or Indian-American.  Then came my middle 20 years and with it, two miraculous decades of discovering myself through the fiction of R. K. Narayan, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. Sadly, with the explosion of books from and about the Indian subcontinent’s diaspora for the next two decades, I began to take Indian literature for granted. 

Murali Kamma’s Not Native reminds me of the paradox of abundance; when we have too much of a good thing, we tend to diminish its value.  Not Native is a marvelous reminder to appreciate the reflection in the mirror.  Over the upcoming decades of my life, a life that is increasingly settled and looking in the rear-view mirror when life was more unsettled, I commit to reading more books that remind me of who I am and where I came from.

“Settled” and “unsettled” are good descriptors of the characters populating Not Native’s short stories.  Grouped into four thematic clusters, these 20 stories are not always happy, but they are consistently heartwarming in how they bring to life the immigrant’s experience of leaving a settled space (India) for an unsettled one (America) and sometimes revisiting India.  

Many of Kamma’s endings have a gentle hopefulness about them.  To wade into Not Native’s waters is to be soothed by them in the same way a gurgling brook takes one’s troubles away.  Especially in the first half of the book, one is reminded of how the legendary storyteller R. K. Narayan transported readers to his make-believe Malgudi.  The gentle language slows you down, makes you forget about your worries, takes you nostalgically to a simpler time. And in Kamma’s elegant simplicity is an engaging sophistication.  

There is a fine range in Not Native, which makes it accessible to a wide spectrum of readers.  While I was especially fond of the first half of the book, some readers will lean toward the back two sections (“Schisms and Surprises” and “At Cross Purposes”) which are somewhat edgier and more overtly political, especially the short story “Fragments of Glass.”  A couple of the stories have elements of a crime drama, with one hinting of tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York. But none of these pieces retreat from the hard-earned trust Murali Kamma has built with the reader in the opening chapters of his superb book.  Surprise endings don’t end in tragedy, and endearing characters do not degenerate into mawkish sappiness.  


NOT NATIVE:  SHORT STORIES OF IMMIGRANT LIFE IN AN IN-BETWEEN WORLD. By Murali Kamma.  Wising Up Press,2019.  173 pages. http://www.universaltable.org/libraryfiction/notnative.html

In honor of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, Dr. Oza recently recently published Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas.  He can be reached at www.satyalogue.com or at https://amazon.com/author/rajoza where he has launched his new book.

The Modern Female Mowgli

“The Law of the Jungle is unforgiving, but also numinously complex. The honeyguide bird leads the badger to the hive so that the strong badger can break open the honey, benefiting the bird and the badger. A boy and an elephant become each other’s keepers. I suppose if these things are possible and permitted, the Law of the Jungle then must have been waiting through the ages for the day that a young girl would become mother to a tiger.”

Inspired by true events, this delightful book is about a young girl in India who rescues a tiger cub and tries desperately to get it to the relatively safe habitat of the jungle. The story begins in a village outside Mangalore, where the 15 year old protagonist, Isha, has been sent to live with her grandparents for the summer. It is here that she encounters the last surviving cub of a Bengal tiger — an encounter that changes her life. The book is a somewhat modern-day retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book, where Mowgli is, of course, a girl — the untamable, nature-loving Isha, who is too “wild” for a classroom. With a love for all things forbidden, she is known as “The Saint of Small Things”, and can singlehandedly climb trees, fight village boys and rescue snakes. Animals are more real to her than the people she knows in her life. 

The book is filled with numerous stories and anecdotes about the forest and its amazing animals. It’s a pleasure reading some of the most vivid, picture-perfect descriptions of the splendid beauty of the rolling coffee hills in Chikmagalur and Coorg as well as Kerala’s crystal coast. The awe-inspiring strength of an elephant is illustrated through the story of an old, eleven-foot tall tusker called Ramachandran who is kept in a temple in Kerala. The elephant has killed several people, other elephants, and even a few cows. The book also throws light on the tenuous relationship between tribal people and the Forest department. But most of all, it draws attention to the alarming reality of how so many of our wild animals — particularly tigers — are fast disappearing from the world. 

Naturalist, explorer, author and award-winning wildlife filmmaker Paul Rosolie spent the last decade in the rainforests of India, Brazil, Indonesia and Peru, following wild elephant herds, tracking tigers and documenting the illegal trade in endangered species. He first traveled to India in 2008 on a study program through Ramapo College, when he met his wife, Gowri Varanashi. Subsequently, the couple began working together in their company, Tamandua Expeditions. Rosolie, along with Gowri, went for several jungle adventures and road trips in the stunning forests of south India, where they encountered many of the incredible experiences that lead up to this book. In fact, Thimma’s character in the book has been inspired by a man from a tribal community inside the Nagarhole National Park, who helped Rosolie and his wife explore the forest. Rosolie has also spent time with Adivasi communities who were displaced from their forest homes as well as with communities that still lived in the jungle. 

Someday, I would love to watch a movie adaptation based on this book, which is an absolute treat for all wildlife enthusiasts and lovers of nature!

THE GIRL AND THE TIGER. By Paul Rosolie. Owl Hollow Press, 2019. 342 pages. $15.99. Paperback.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com

Pride And Prejudice Set In Pakistan

A couple of years ago, my book club read Soniah Kamal’s first novel, An Isolated Incident. We were lucky to spend a lovely afternoon with the Atlanta-based author, drinking chai and discussing the book’s themes of love and terrorism, the characters’ motivations, the author’s international upbringing, her writing journey and more. I enjoyed Kamal’s writing style and knew I’d pick up whatever she wrote next.

Fast forward to this year when Umarriageable hit the shelves and made a splash as Amazon’s Best Book Pick in January 2019 and The New York Post’s Book of the Week Pick, with mentions in Bustle, Parade, People Magazine and more. Kamal is an award winning writer and her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian. Her TEDx talk about finding the blessing in unfulfilled dreams is inspiring.

Umarriageable, a desi retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has the same strong writing as Kamal’s previous novel but with a far different tone which speaks to her versatility as a storyteller.

“I’ve read Wrath and Mockingbird,” Darsee said. He skimmed A Passage to India. “I haven’t read much local literature, not that Passage is local per se, though it’s up for debate whether it’s the nationality of the author or the geography of the book that determines its place in a country’s canon.”

“Val” – Hammy gave him her most dazzling smile -”have you read Love Story? It’s really short and belongs everywhere, for love knows no boundaries.” She sighed theatrically. “Love transcends country and geography.”

Alys and Darsee both gave Hammy equally amused glances.

“I believe,” Alys said to Darsee, “a book and an author can belong to more than one country or culture. English came with the colonizers, but its literature is part of our heritage too, as is pre-partition writing.”

Set in modern day Pakistan, the story follows the Binat sisters – Alys, Jena, Mari, Quitty and Lady – as they navigate the age-old pressures of finding suitable grooms while striving to create their own identities as independent women. For fans of the original novel, the author’s clever play on the characters’ names (“Alys” for Lizzie, “Darsee” for Darcy, “Sherry” for Charlotte and my personal favorite – “Bungles” a.k.a Charles Bingly) will become a delightful game of figuring out who is who.

On the surface, Unmarriageable offers up humor, wit, romance, the seemingly over-the-top but ironically true-to-life characters and the classic dilemma of log kya kahenge (what will people think?). But underneath are deeper themes of post-colonialism, feminism and even homosexuality. Kamal explores the notion of “home” when you’ve grown up outside your country of origin and the importance of literature in shaping a society. Her love for books shines through with references to Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison.

What made this story satisfying was not only a happily-ever-after ending but also a look into what happens to the Binat sisters after the final curtain, how they spread their wings in their own unique way and fly. Marriage is one aspect of Alys’s and Jena’s lives, a pillar that stands alongside their individual passions and careers.  

Ultimately, with this retelling, Kamal shows us that the best stories are those that transcend time and place, where worlds collide and we realize that our experiences are truly universal.

Kalyani Deshpande (www.kalyanideshpande.com) writes thought-provoking, cross-cultural stories that uplift and inspire. She has completed one novel, The Year of Yes and is currently working on a collection of magical realism short stories. Kalyani lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons.

Mistry Mystery: Solved in New Series

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. Soho Crime/Soho Press, Inc.: New York. 400 pages. Hardcover. Also available as a digital book.

Sujata Massey, the award-winning author of the Rei Shimura mystery series, The Sleeping Dictionary (IC, Sept. 2014), and India Gray: Historical Fiction (IC, Feb. 2016), debuted a new legal mystery series in January that is certain to please a wide range of readers. Set in 1920s Bombay, the series launched with The Widows of Malabar Hill features intrepid Perveen Mistry, the first female lawyer/solicitor in India. As fate would have it, wherever Miss Mistry goes, murder follows, but the book’s concept will also resonate with historical fiction fans.

Oxford law-educated Perveen Mistry works alongside her father, head of the prominent Bombay firm Mistry Law. Headstrong and rebellious yet empathetic and keenly aware of propriety, Perveen is a paper shuffler, reviewing contracts, wills, and other documents at a time when women weren’t allowed to practice law in the courts. It’s tedious work for most, but for the energetic 23-year-old, the thrill of working with her father and the law pleases her. Based on India’s first female lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji, Perveen would be comfortable practicing law today with her keen sense of women’s rights and her determination to exact justice.

When wealthy client Omar Farid dies, his family’s trustee requests a change in the estate, stating that the three widows wish to turn over their resources to a charitable organization while receiving annuities for themselves and their children. Upon scrutinizing the request, Perveen determines it may not be 100% legitimate, and because the women live in purdah, Perveen is the only one who can speak with the wives about their inheritances. Excited by this opportunity, she visits the deceased’s Malabar Hill home. There, conflicting stories, hidden details, and half-truths further convince Perveen that there is something amiss. Shortly thereafter, she finds the trustee murdered and one of the children in the house missing. Although her job is to ferret out the truth behind the trust’s discrepancies, Perveen doesn’t hesitate to pursue justice when she can prove innocence and identify the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Perveen’s Oxford classmate and mathematician friend, the Honourable Alice Hobson-Jones, who arrives from London to join her parents. The daughter of Sir David (the governor’s special councilor) and his wife, Lady Gwendolyn, Indian-born Alice is full of spit and vinegar and ecstatic to have left England behind. As it turns out, the Hobson-Joneses live near enough to the Farid home to see it from their upper floor, and Alice is more than a little curious about what’s going on there.

Another subplot involves Perveen’s pre-Oxford whirlwind courtship and marriage to a charming businessman, Cyrus Sodawalla of Calcutta. Through flashbacks, we learn the backstory of Perveen choosing to study law in England. They also give insights into archaic Parsi practices still a part of daily life at the time (torturous seclusion during a woman’s menstrual cycle) plus a shocking discovery about her new husband and his family. These flashbacks, parceled out in various chunks, grip the reader’s attention as a separate marital mystery.

Massey is a lush and descriptive writer, and with this book, she easily seduces the reader by evoking the alluring smells of Parsi meals, the sounds of busy Bombay streets, and the wash of cultures that drive the people who live there. Strolls along the beaches of Bombay, snacks from a Parsi bakery-café, the sounds and traffic of the streets and various modes of transportation make 1920s Bombay come alive. Life of the day teems with multiple religions and cultures, history, and the appealing ways all those layers of life coexist in post-World War I India. Romance, drama, and even some adventure round out the whole.

Widows of Malabar Hill is a treasure trove of tidbits and glimpses, overflowing with supporting details about Bombay architecture and the city’s docks as well as religious laws and legal procedures of the day. Massey’s extensive research reveals fascinating information regarding Parsi and Muslim family structures, holidays, and accommodations along with Muslim traditions, observances, and hierarchies among polygynous households.

Topics that might have been considered taboo at the time are addressed as a matter of fact rather than as a matter of sensationalism. Alice’s lesbianism is addressed but not exploited. Her parents are wholly unaccepting of her daughter’s sexual preference; however, Perveen is a modern young woman who doesn’t care about such differentiations and sees Alice as her dear friend, no more, no less. Her own thrilling and secretive courtship hits hard against accepted norms for young Parsi women of the time, and her marriage crumbles under cruelty and subterfuge. This allows Massey to easily weave in details of Parsi marital law, an integral part of the story.

Massey also touches on women’s rights in a society that views them as second-class citizens. In the flashbacks, Perveen audits law courses as a “special student” and as the only female at the Government Law School of Elphinstone College. As such and because of her intelligence, her male classmates subject her to mean-spirited ribbing and pranking, forcing her to quit and eventually marry.

Even with her somewhat troubled past, Perveen Mistry’s family is close-knit, loving, and supportive. She is as spunky as Rei Shimura and as resourceful as Kamala in The Sleeping Dictionary. First introduced in the India Gray novella Outnumbered at Oxford, she is a leader, a mover, a shaker. She won’t take no for an answer, she’s hungry for knowledge and justice, and she’s on her way to making history.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects.