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Book covers for: The Bombay Prince and The Satapur Moonstone

Historical Mysteries of 1921 in India Resonate a Century Later

Oxford-educated Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female solicitor, is a clever, spirited young woman working for her father’s respected law firm in 1921 Bombay. Unable to fully practice because a woman can’t earn a law degree, her father relies on her exacting skills with contract law and her nimble mind for additional legal assistance. Introduced to readers in Sujata Massey’s 2015 novella, Outnumbered at Oxford, then launched in The Widows of Malabar Hill (Book 1) of the author’s Mystery of 1920s India series, the success of the second and third installments shows no sign of Perveen’s career being dismissed.

October 1921. Despite being supportive of Gandhi, Perveen accepts a one-time case on behalf of the Kohlapur Agency and the British government in The Satapur Moonstone (Book 2). Like her interaction with the widows in Book 1, the Agency’s clients live in purdah and cannot speak to male outsiders. Her task is to hear both sides of a contentious debate between two maharanis—the dowager and the mother of the 10-year-old crown prince—and make a recommendation for the prince’s education.

The catch is, however, she must travel to the princely state of Satapur in the isolated Sahyadri mountains where transportation is by palanquin or horseback. Upon arrival at her lodgings, the circuit house, she meets Colin Sandringham, the political agent overseeing the area. Quickly, Perveen feels uncomfortable. Sandringham is a bachelor who recalls meeting her one evening at Oxford; she is the only woman at the circuit house; and the environment is breathtaking but treacherous even in daylight. In turn, unnerving details come to light as she undertakes her assignment. She learns the crown prince’s father and older brother recently died; the palace teems with backstabbing personalities; and the royal children are at risk. Consequently, Perveen finds herself trapped in a deadly royal situation and unable to keep from falling for Sandringham against her better judgment.

November 1921. Perveen finds herself caught in an explosive political situation at home in newly-published Book 3, The Bombay Prince. Anti-British sentiments are in the air, and Edward, Prince of Wales, is set to arrive in Bombay. Days before, college student Freny Cuttingmaster asks Perveen for guidance on behalf of an activist group: Would there be consequences for being absent from school in protest on the day of Edward’s arrival? For the parade, Perveen joins her best friend Alice, an instructor at the college, in the school’s viewing area. Following a disruptive protest by another student, Freny’s body is discovered on the college grounds. The supposition is that she had fallen and suffered injuries similar to an incident 30 years prior at another school.

Because Freny sought her counsel, Perveen vows to untangle the reason for Freny’s death. But without eyewitnesses, Perveen faces major hurdles. Her father restricts her movements by booking them in the Taj Hotel because of the increasing violence. There, she is stunned to encounter Colin Sandringham, who is accompanying Edward on his tour. Meanwhile, police are uncooperative, the press is relentless, and the arrested protester’s lawyer is incompetent. Nevertheless, Perveen forges ahead with her own investigation, questioning everyone’s motives, and becoming a target herself.

Author, Sujata Massey (Image from her website)
Author, Sujata Massey (Image from her website)

In all three books, Massey brilliantly sets up challenges, tension, and danger mixed with reasonable doubt about many characters and their possible motives. Those reasonable doubts are the products of Perveen’s questioning mind and focused labor to fit puzzle pieces together. Without modern investigative methods, equipment, or resources, Massey makes certain her legal sleuth remains firmly within all the boundaries of the 1920s.

Around the mysteries, Massey gracefully weaves India’s diverse cultures, religions, and societal expectations into the novels. She recreates 1920s Bombay with precise attention to detail, drawing out the tantalizing smell of foods, the vibrant colors of clothing, the friction caused by political beliefs, the strict Parsi matrimonial laws, the warmth and loyalty between family and friends, the textures and architecture of the city, the lushness of the mountainous jungle in The Satapur Moonstone, and the Parsi funeral customs in Bombay Prince. Massey’s awareness of time, place, and community results in Bombay a century ago so vividly that the reader is effortlessly transported.

It is Perveen herself that makes this series such delightful reading. She is rendered with great humanness as a caring, generous role model. Occasionally outspoken, she knows when to reveal her anger or maintain the decorum expected of her.

“Two of India’s early women lawyers, barrister Mithan Tata Lam and solicitor Cornelia Sorabji, were inspirational for my research,” Massey told me. “Both of them fought for the physical safety and property rights of women. Cornelia went through the jungle to meet female clients who lived in seclusion at palaces and similar locations. Mithan was the guiding force in rewriting the punitive divorce law for Parsi people, but it wasn’t accomplished until 1936.”

Massey is writing Book 4 now, about which she revealed, “I’ve explored British-Indian political themes in Books 2 and 3, and Book 4 is very strongly a woman’s rights themed book.”

Although women still face many struggles in 2021, it was a century’s worth more difficult in 1921. For Perveen, she endures immeasurable pressure as an upper-class Parsi woman who is separated from an abusive husband and who is Bombay’s only female lawyer. Perveen is an early 20th-century champion of truth and justice, women’s rights, and equality. In this way, she easily translates to today.

For mystery devotees, this series is unlike any other. For historical fiction aficionados, the author provides a rich representation of the world in which Perveen lives and works. Bombay in the 1920s, the Parsi community, and the recurring and familiar lovable characters all combine to give the reader a complete and enduring experience.


 Jeanne E. Fredriksen splits her time between homes in both Carolinas and is a long-time contributor to India Currents, 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. 


 

Fierce and Determined: A Pioneering Spirit

Biographies such as Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions, Nandini Patwardhan’s engrossing biography of Dr. Anandibai Joshee, celebrate women while underscoring their plight.

Born in March 1865, married at the age of nine, and pregnant as a young teen, Joshee lost a son only 10 days following his birth. Because she had eagerly embraced education under her husband’s tutelage, she reasoned her loss was due to an absolute lack of healthcare for women. This led her to become a doctor.

A chance reading of an 1879 article in Missionary Review about Joshee and her goals, Theodocia Carpenter of Roselle, NJ, was compelled to write Joshee a letter, and upon receipt, Joshee replied. Over the next years, a deep, binding relationship—that of aunt and niece—developed between the women. Joshee arrived in the U.S. in 1883, where she was welcomed as an innovator, stayed with the Carpenters, and was awarded a scholarship to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Three years later, she was the first Indian woman to become a doctor.

Bold and brilliant, Joshee defied all expectations of her Brahmin caste and became well-known before she stepped onto the ship The City of Calcutta, her first leg of her voyage to America. Yet, she suffered all manner of difficulties as she moved toward her dream: Christian attempts to convert her in exchange for assistance; criticism from family and Indian society; the inability to obtain vegetarian food during her travel and while overseas; the onset of tuberculosis; and even abuse from her husband.

Image of Anandi Joshee as published in Frank Leslie’s Magazine. Feature written by Hans Mattson.

Through extensive research—Joshee’s letters to her husband, Carpenter, and others; primary sources written by those who knew and interacted with Joshee; contemporary articles—Patwardhan superbly chronicles the life of an inspiring young woman. She brings Joshee’s fierce spirit and determination to life a century and a half after Joshee was born. Patwardhan, who has lived in the U.S. for four decades, seamlessly employs the ability to present the story via what she calls her “insider-outsider perspective.” With strong, elegant writing combined with care to shed light on Indian culture under the British Raj, Patwardhan offers a captivating read.

I began to read this book on March 17, the day after Americans were advised to limit socializing, work remotely, and stay home from school for 15 days. Covid-19, the global pandemic, changed the way we live. Immediately, the story presented a sobering connection between Dr. Joshee and us. As Americans, we expect to enjoy a good life. What we don’t know, however, is what life will look like on the other side of this crisis. In the same way, Anandibai had expected a certain, prescribed life. Once she decided to do what no other Indian woman had thought to do, she had no idea what life would be like once she left home as a young girl in 1883.

Joshee’s life was short—just under 22 years—but her impact was great. She achieved what no Indian woman before her had dared and motivated others to follow suit. For all of the personal, cultural, social, and religious obstacles Joshee overcame during her journey toward her goal, she emerged as a true pioneer through will, determination, and focus. It is to Patwardhan’s credit that she has kept Dr. Joshee’s empowering story and spirit alive, especially during a time when some days may seem hopeless.

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. 


Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions by Nandini Patwardhan. Story Artisan Press. 357 Pages.

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.