Tag Archives: Sujata massey

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. 


 

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.