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.