The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Always looking for a good murder, that’s me. Throw in a strong female lead, an unusual setting, respectful cultural detail, history by the bucketful, and impressive writing chops, and well, I’m happy as a pig in a midden. Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Crime, 2018) is set in 1920s Bombay, and features a Zoroastrian (Parsi) female lawyer tracking a murderer, battling bigotry, and fighting for her female clients’ rights. Call me Porky.

It’s 1921, and Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman solicitor, is finishing up a property contract in her office in Mistry House. But oh, her path to success has been rocky. Her father’s a lawyer too, which enabled her become the first woman to attend law school at Elphinstone College. But when she becomes the second-highest -scoring student after the first year, she’s made the target of terrible harassment and academic sabotage by the male students, who are resentful she’s showing them up. After many twists and turns, Perveen completes her law studies in Oxford, and returns to Bombay to help her father.

While many refuse to deal with a woman, Perveen’s gender finally becomes an asset when dealing with a particular set of clients–Muslim ladies who are purdahnashins (followers of strict Purdah laws), who live in a zenana and must avoid men who aren’t close family. A rich Muslim man Mr. Farid, with a valuable house in ultra-posh Malabar Hill, has just died, and his three widows (the titular ladies) have just signed away their monies to be donated to the family’s wakf. (Acc. to Wiki, a wakf is “an inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law, which typically involves donating a building, plot of land or other assets for Muslim  religious or charitable purposes with no intention of reclaiming the assets. The donated assets may be held by a charitable trust.”)

Perveen suspects that the paperwork, handled by the household agent Mukhri, isn’t quite aboveboard, and decides to meet the Farid widows to ensure they haven’t been coerced into signing away their property. Mukhri turns out to be a sleazeball, and Perveen is justly worried for the wives’ fate. Even as she’s figuring out the best way to confront him, Mukhri turns up dead, stabbed in a particularly vicious manner. Whodunit? And will there be a real push by the (British) police to figure it out?

It’s a juicy mystery, but the real lure of this novel for me lies in Massey’s adept detailing of the socio-cultural context of the murder.  Here be Hindu, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Anglo-Indians, Jews, and the British, all boiling away furiously in the cauldron that is pre-independence Bombay. (Massey herself is German-Indian, was raised in Minnesota, and lives in Baltimore.) Each community has its own hierarchy, and its own markers of worth and respectability, but beware of making quick assumptions about liberation and progressiveness. The characters are complex individuals who are impossible to stereotype; while they are very much part of their religious and ethnic identities, they are much more than single stories. The British are colonizing India, but Perveen’s best friend is a queer English girl who is very willing to help Perveen. Parsis pride themselves on their progressiveness, but some rigidly sequester women during their menstrual cycles, to the extent of denying them the right to even clean themselves.  Muslim women might live in seclusion (voluntary or involuntary), but Muslim law allows widows to claim their dower against the husband’s estate even before the legacy distribution…

And oh, Massey’s research, and her attention to detail, are simply glorious.  For instance, we’re told Perveen has a golden-brown Swaine Adeney bridle leather briefcase, with her initials stamped in gold (it’s the case depicted on the book cover). Who can resist such specificity? I googled it, and yes, for a mere £1795 you can get Perveen’s case at Swaine Adeney Brigg, “individually created in [their] Cambridge workshop by a single craftsman”.  rac99tay_mediumAnd Perveen’s grandfather’s portrait hanging in Mistry House was done by one Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, who studied under Sargent. And indeed, this Poona-born Jewish painter, known for his portraits, married a Muslim lady, adopted Islam, and moved to Pakistan; check out tate.org.uk for more about him. And did you know that under Parsi law back then, adultery was defined as “a married man’s act with a married lady who is not a prostitute?” It wasn’t adultery, but mere fornication if the man had sex with a prostitute–and not considered to be sufficient cause for divorce, or even legal separation.  I could go on and on, but seriously: read the book.

And if you have the remotest connection to Bombay or Mumbai, you’ll loooove this book. The Widows… is an object lesson on how to perfectly balance a novel’s appeal between plot and setting.  “[The area called] Fort’s twenty square miles were once the East India Company’s original fortified settlement. Now the district was known for the High Court and the many law offices around it. Nestled alongside the British and Hindu and Muslim law offices were a significant number owned by […] Zoroastrians. Although Parsis accounted for just 6% of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they constituted one-third of its lawyers.” Here’s Perveen, buying sweets from Yazdani’s, an Irani bakery, before hailing a sunbonnetted rickshaw to Ballard Pier to greet the SS London. Here’s a mention of Lord Tata’s proposal for the development of Back Bay. One of the Farid widows was dowered with some not-so-useful swampland in Girangaon, where they’ve now built a mill or two or ten. There’s talk of Bombay’s Gothic architecture, and hey, Mistry House was designed by James Fuller, the  English architect who built the High Court. Queen’s Necklace, Chowpatty Beach…they’re all there, and how.

Perveen is based on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji, who was “the first female graduate from Bombay University, the first woman [of any race, I think!] to study law at Oxford University, the first female advocate in India, and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain.”  Wow. “Sorabji got involved in social and advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins, women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. In many cases, these women owned considerable property, yet had no access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it. Sorabji was given special permission to enter pleas on their behalf before British agents of Kathiawar and Indore principalities, but she was unable to defend them in court since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system. Hoping to remedy this situation, Sorabji presented herself for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897 and the pleader’s examination of Allahabad High Court in 1899. Yet, despite her successes, Sorabji would not be recognised as a barrister until the law which barred women from practising was changed in 1923.”

I’ve blogged about Massey’s excellent Rei Shimura mysteries earlier, but I have to say, she’s really upped her game with Perveen Mistry, and I’ll be HUGELY upset if after creating such a magnificent set-up, Massey isn’t slogging away at a sequel. And while I’m dreaming, maybe Netflix could make it a series too? Subaltern Phryne Fisher FTW!

 

 

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Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

I’ve searched many moons for a nuanced kid’s book that explains India’s struggle with British colonial rule prior to the country’s independence in 1947. Supriya Kelkar’s middle grade novel Ahimsa (Tu Books, 2017) is that book. It provides a lucid, thoughtful explanation of the ethos and evolution of India’s journey to self-governance–and acts as a welcome antidote to Empire defenders with their rallying cry of “But the railways!” Nope, dudes.

It’s 1942, and Gandhi, jailed by the British, has urged Indians to go on a strike to compel the British to “Quit India” already. Gandhi has asked for peaceful civil disobedience, based on the principle of ahimsa or non-violence, to never hurt anyone. Young Anjali, all fired with patriotism, decides to paint a large Q (short for “Quit India”) on the local British officer’s house. After all, the British won’t hang a ten-year-old girl…or will they? Anjali’s mother used to be the officer’s secretary, but then resigned. Or was she let go? It’s all very complicated, but one thing is clear to Anjali: her duty lies in fighting injustice, beginning with a little well-intentioned vandalism.

And then the Gandhian movement comes to Anjali’s backyard, when Anjali’s mother becomes a freedom fighter. Ma’s first step is to burn all their British-manufactured clothes. (Why? Because India’s raw cotton was exported, at pitiful rates, to Britain, whose mills processed it into cloth that was sold right back to the hapless Indians. The freedom fighters vowed to hand spin their own yarn on a spinning wheel, and have that yarn made into coarse cloth locally, rather than patronize mill-made British cloth; many activists burnt their British-made outfits as a gesture of rejection.) Ma’s gorgeous wedding sari, her father’s work clothes, Anjali’s dresses–even her beloved gold-embroidered Diwali outfits– are all gone. And Anjali’s father isn’t happy–maybe those clothes could have been donated to the poor?

Anjali is courageous, stubborn, intelligent, and most importantly, capable of critical thinking. Even as she’s protesting the indignity of British rule, which treats Indians as unfathomably inferior to whites, she gradually realizes that many Indians are just as culpable of cruelty to their own people. The caste system she’s never questioned (she’s upper caste) treats low caste people (called untouchables) inhumanely—just as horribly as the British treat Indians. And once sensitized to injustice, Anjali is forced to question her own attitudes–towards Muslims, towards the caste system and its deep roots in Hinduism, and even towards Gandhi, whose Hinduism-based approach to helping lower castes might have more than a whiff of condescension.

This can all seem a bit preachy, but Kelkar paces the novel beautifully, sans info-dumps–we learn about India and British colonial rule along with Anjali. Perfect reading for 7-14 age group. And the problem Anjali faces is a universal one–people resisting change when it results in the loss of their (unfair + unearned) privilege and power. It’s lovely to watch Anjali’s  speedy transformation from one of the NIMBY crowd to a principled fighter who does the right thing even when it’s hard physically, intellectually, and emotionally. And it’s equally satisfying to witness the journeys of the supporting characters. Take Ma, whose attempts at caste integration begin as well-meaning but insulting charity. But by reflecting, and listening to other perspectives, she moves from token gestures to genuine empathy.

Sometimes Ahimsa feels a bit like it’s ticking off boxes–Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, she has a pet cow (who’d make the perfect emotional-support animal!), and she lives with an ultra-conservative great uncle who freely vocalizes on the dangers of women working outside the home, disrupting caste barriers etc. etc. Kelkar, however,  injects the plot with enough twists that it never feels predictable, and in all, she does a superb job of balancing historical detail with the honest-to-goodness confusion of a ten-year-old figuring out her role in a turbulent world. Ultimately, Anjali captures our hearts with her vulnerability, her compassion, and her determination to be the change she wishes to see. And we learn, along with Anjali, to never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.

***

Kelkar was born and brought up in the Midwestern United States, and for readers unfamiliar with India’s freedom struggle, she’s included a helpful Author’s Note which provides a more detailed social and historical context for the events in the book. Fun aside: the author’s great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale was a freedom fighter who worked with Gandhi. She “was imprisoned for civil disobedience, fought for women’s rights […]. After independence, [she] went on to become a two-term Congresswoman.” Woo-hoo!

 

Moebius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways by Giti Thadani

The more I read about Giti Thadani, a scholar based in Berlin and New Delhi, the more intrigued I became. Thadani dropped out of high school (Convent of Jesus and Mary in New Delhi, y’all) when she was fifteen. She started India’s “first lesbian organization ‘Sakhi Collective’ way back in 1990″.  And she spent several years driving around India exploring temples and museums in order to understand the representations of the female divinity in ancient Indian culture. What’s not to like about her courage and commitment and her zero tolerance for bullshit?

Moebius Trip: Digressions  from India’s Highways  (Spinifex Press, 2007)  is a travelogue focusing on Thadani’s experiences as a solo female traveler in India, and on her discovery of female-centric iconography in Hindu temples. In the latter thread, Thadani considers religious semiotics, linguistics, architecture, and mythology.  She visits long-forgotten yogini temples and sites devoted to Matrika worship, deploring the kitsch that has invaded most of the better-known places of worship. She bludgeons apathetic museum curators into showing her long-neglected statues depicting lesbian relationships in Indian myth.  She ponders the histories that have been erased and the stories that have been appropriated over time to create contemporary (male-centric) religious practice in India.

This book was first published in 2003,  and much of its value lies in its commentary on the situation faced by women traveling alone in India. As a woman driver in India, Thadani must deal with “hordes of men, all trying to overtake so as to ascertain my gender.”  She meets men who help her change a wheel when her hands are too numb with cold, who go out of their way to help her locate hidden sites, and she also meets many idiots drunk on their masculinity. In one chilling episode, a truck deliberately makes her crash, and the truck driver boasts that the road belongs to men and he hence “had to” teach women drivers “their due lesson”. Public spaces in India have largely been taken over by men, as have most religious spaces (which have deliberately diminished and domesticated goddesses); we could debate endlessly about the causality here.

While I have nothing but unqualified admiration for the author, I must confess to mixed feelings towards this book.  Thadani is obviously deeply knowledgeable about the feminine in ancient Indian myth and culture, but her analysis in this book is mostly unanchored by documentation. She subverts many dominant narratives (which is great! I love it!) but often doesn’t cite a source. For instance, while summarizing the Ramayana,  she writes that “Rama never had children of his own”,  that “Sita remained virginal […] in his company” and that when Sita was later exiled, she “parthenogenically produce[d] two male twins. ” Now, the popular version (of what is arguably India’s most famous epic) has Sita’s twins fathered the usual way by Rama. I’m eager to consider a new story, but without the source it’s speculation, innit? Another example:  while writing about British India, Thadani says that any large-scale migration was punishable under colonial law–“people could have their hands and feet cut off.” I’d love to know where she got that information (and if such a law was ever implemented, and what the consequences were). But again, there’s no further detail about that statement. One could argue that Moebius Trip doesn’t ever claim to be anything but a travelogue, but that doesn’t preclude attribution.  The book would have carried so much more weight if only Thadani had bothered to document her sources.

My frustration/fascination with Thadani’s work was perhaps keenest when considering her prose. Much of the writing is beautiful,  poetic in approach and intensity, seeking to articulate profound mysteries, making for opaque yet hypnotic reading.  There are lovely insights–I was very impressed, for instance, with her description of a hotelier in Kerala who was attempting  to “finesse his culture” through his presentation of local cuisine.  Some of the writing is quite academic in tone, and I found it heavy going. And some of it is just plain clunky–for instance, she writes about “marriage processions composed of people who seem to believe they have to compensate for the empty jar of arranged marriage mediocrity by blaring their bandbaaja.” What?! Writing about her hotel room, she says, “Mosquitoes are rampant, and the electric repellent does not work.[…] The food in the adjoining cafe is equally repellent…” Aaargh! How can the same person who notes that “Each cosmology has its own aesthetics of light” also claim “…when I am completely concentrated, I can cover these two hundred-odd kilometers in three hours”? 

Despite the above complaints, I do recommend this book–when it’s good, it’s very good. And for another viewpoint, do check out Marilyn’s thoughtful review here.

Thanks to Spinifex Press for sending me this book all the way from Australia! This review goes towards the Global Women of Color Challenge.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes

Most Hindus have a favorite god or ten, and chances are Ganesha will top the list. He’s worshiped as the remover of obstacles and the lord of beginnings, the god of intellect and wisdom, and he’s invoked as a patron of letters during writing sessions, and as the god of arts and sciences. And he’s particularly appealing to kids–he rides a mouse and is fond of sweets and has an elephant’s head, and has plenty of fun adventures. (Yes, theology is notably absent in my childhood memories of Ganesha.)

I requested Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth for review from Chronicle Books (Raincoast Books in Canada) because I liked Sanjay Patel’s previous book Ramayana–Divine Loophole. Patel is an animator at Pixar, and favors unvarnished text and clean-edged colorful illustrations that are utterly devoid of the soft-focus sentimentality that tends to permeate this sort of narrative. And yup, I asked for this book because I’ve been  searching for kidlit that explains religion without being all pompous and preachy and exceptionalist and smug and superior, and oh, panning for gold in my kitchen sink would have been a more productive quest by far. If you tend to answer your child’s questions about god(s) with a wary “Well, some people believe…”, you know what I’m talking about.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is based on the myth in which Ganesha is asked (by Vyasa) to record the verses of the epic poem Mahabharata. When Ganesha’s pen breaks, the resourceful god breaks off his tusk and uses it as a stylus to keep writing.  There are a number of versions of this story–it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that each Hindu family cherishes its particular oral history of this myth; my preferred interpretation is the one where the tusk is said to symbolize that no sacrifice is too great in the pursuit of learning. Patel however changes some major plot points–this book is not a re-telling as much as a re-invention of the tale. Those looking to take offence will be amply satiated.

The young Ganesha, cruising with his magical mouse (“Mr. Mouse”) searching for sweets, finds a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Laddoo. He pops the shiny blue treat into his mouth… and breaks his tusk. He tries to fix the tusk back on, but failing, hurls it away in frustration, whereupon it hits an old man walking past. That’s Vyasa the poet, and he asks if Ganesha will be his scribe for a special poem so long that “all the pens in this world would break before it was done.” Ganesha agrees to try out his tusk for the job.

(All book images from Sanjay Patel’s website Gheehappy.)

The tusk works great, so Ganesha sits down to record the Mahabharata, getting up only one hundred thousand verses later. And there’s still some laddoos waiting for him.

What a  sweet little story! I really enjoyed the ending (which reminded me of Max’s warm supper in Where the Wild Things Are) and the absence of a moral (well, “Don’t eat jawbreakers” doesn’t qualify IMO). The portrayal of the Ganesha as a child first and god second makes kids connect with the story in an elemental way–Ganesha is shown jumping rope, dancing to music, and ringing bells with his trunk.  The illustrations are superb–they’re drenched with color, and they beautifully reconcile traditional Indian motifs with computer-generated graphics. And while I did have context for the myth, my son has never heard of the Mahabharata, and he enjoyed the book because “it was scary when the tusk broke, but I like that the tusk helped him draw.”

Patel says the plot has been changed to “develop an original and, we hope, fun picture book” but I’m pretty sure many (Indian) readers will ask why he  didn’t stick to the original myth (the jawbreaker laddoo episode has been inserted purely to ramp up the entertainment quotient for kids). Well,  I understand the question and sympathize to some extent, but I personally think re-inventions and re-interpretations are true to the spirit of the religion–strict adherence to a text isn’t a characteristic of the Hindusim I know.  Look at this statue I found during a google image search for Ganesha:

That’s Ganesha with a computer, and his mouse is the computer mouse. I’ve seen statues of Ganesha playing cricket, strumming a guitar, holding a laptop and so on, and I think these are respectful yet fun, serving as an acknowledgement of Ganesha’s ubiquity in everyday Indian life. I’d recommend Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth to atheists, believers, the confused and the indifferent and oh yes, to all varieties of kids.

Note: For further reading on this topic, you’d probably do well to check out The Broken Tusk by the incomparable Uma Krishnaswami.  I haven’t read it (yet), but you can’t go wrong with her work.

Tears of Mehndi by Raminder Sidhu

Raminder Sidhu’s ambitious debut novel Tears of Mehndi (Caitlin Press, 2012) seeks to capture the story of the Indian Sikh community in Vancouver’s Little India over the past thirty-five years. The story begins in 1976, with a shocking racial incident—a small Sikh-owned grocery store is vandalized, with chocolate milk splashed everywhere; the graffiti reads “Hindu brest [sic] milk for free.” Now, this is a very cleverly crafted anecdote, doubly conveying the depth of ignorance faced by the Sikh community. But if there is racism without, there is oppression within. Although the Sikh religion regards the sexes as equal,
traditional gender roles dominate in a largely patriarchal community known to prize izzat (honor/reputation) very deeply. As ever, it is women (and their bodies) who bear the brunt of such fervor–there’s an over-riding imperative to produce male children, strictures to keep girls chaste and unworldly, and inevitably, so-called “honor” killings. The issue is compounded by the hostility of the outside world; for instance, believing that Canadian education is only for
those willing to integrate entirely and erase their cultural differences, some Sikh parents withdraw their daughters from high school.

There’s some first novel-itis going on, with Sidhu attempting to say *everything* about this community in 237 pages, and the unwieldy cast of characters (eight different first-person narrators!) meant I gave up keeping track of whose daughter was clandestinely meeting whom about halfway through the story. But Sidhu has considerable authorial strengths, notably including her unflinching gaze and her deep insider knowledge of Indian Sikhs, as revealed in anecdotes thrumming with life and honesty.

When oppression is seemingly bound to tradition, in a minority community already under siege from the outside world, dissent can seem perilously close to betrayal. In such an environment, community is everything; the universe is divided into Apnay Lok (our people) and the goray (white) outsiders. And within the community, battle lines are drawn not just around gender, but skin color, religion, degree of Westernization, and even old regional loyalties (for instance, a character remarks that she doesn’t like another woman who is from the other side of the river in Punjab, where women are said to be very cunning). Sidhu seems to say that our definitions of community define us; we progress as humans when we adopt affiliations beyond the ones we were born with.

(This review appears in the current issue of Herizons magazine.)

Bookslut interview with Sheela Chari

When Neela agrees to bring her veena (an Indian stringed instrument that is an older and much bulkier sister of a sitar) to her sixth grade Instruments Around the World unit in her Boston school, she’s chiefly worried about performing in public without embarrassing herself. But then Neela’s four-foot veena, packed in its special wheeled case, vanishes while she’s taking shelter from the rain during her walk back home from school. The veena has a history of disappearing and reappearing; could it be cursed? How can an eleven-year-old track it down, especially if it might have resurfaced in India? And does the dragon carving on the instrument mean something special?

Sheela Chari’s middle-grade (MG) novel Vanished (Disney Hyperion, 2011) is a rollicking mystery that seamlessly incorporates multicultural elements into the fast-paced plot. Vanished was chosen as the 2012 Children’s Literature Honor book by APALA, and was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award. Chari, who was born in Bangalore and moved to America when she was three, lives in Boston with her family.

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Chari on this month’s Bookslut.

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“Before Vanished, my writing was generally literary, and without a lot of action. When I decided to work on a children’s mystery novel, I had to deal with a very clear story arc. Which was great for me! I learned how to structure my novel, how to space out clues, and how to make my chapter endings more urgent and page-turning. I was very conscious that a middle grade reader might get impatient with a lot of narrative and description. Essentially, I learned to read my writing like a reader, instead of as a writer alone. If I ever write an adult novel, I will apply a lot of what I learned to the writing of it as well.

[…]

I also wanted to create a certain kind of immigrant on paper — an Indian-American girl who was comfortable enough in her skin that the thought most immediate on her mind wasn’t “How do I fit in?” but “How do I solve this mystery?” A story about such a girl couldn’t focus on all that made her different.”

Check out the rest of the interview here.

***

Vanished was one of my favourite reads of the year, and I urge you to pick up a copy now! And visit do Chari’s website at http://www.sheelachari.com/

Canada Day Book Giveaway!

UPDATE: This giveaway is now closed.

It’s Canada Day on July 1, and along with a host of other Canada-based  bloggers, I’m giving away a Canada-themed book to mark the day. Huzzah!

I’m giving away the acclaimed YA novel Karma (2011), by Calgary-based author Cathy Ostlere. Karma is a 2012 Canadian Library Honour book, a 2012 Booklist Editor’s Choice, a 2012 South Asia Book Award, Highly Commended Book, and is shortlisted for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award.

About the book: Fifteen-year-old Maya and her father Amar arrive from their home in Canada into a seething moment in India’s history.  On October 31, 1984, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two Sikh bodyguards, and the assassination leads to Sikh families being killed in retribution; Amar and Maya are Sikh. “Karma is the story of how a young woman, straddling two cultures and enduring personal loss, learns forgiveness, acceptance and love.”

Reviews: “With its sweeping, even soaring reach, this novel contains a range of earthly experiences and emotions as well: love and death, hatred and evil, joy and engulfing sorrow as perceived and experienced by its two beautifully drawn teen protagonists…” (from The Globe and Mail)

“In her YA debut, acclaimed adult author Ostlere offers a riveting, historically accurate coming-of age tale of gutsy survival, self-sacrifice, and love. Set during a six-week period, the novel in verse makes the most of its lyrical form with lines of dialogue that bounce back and forth in columns across the page and singularly beautiful metaphors and similes that convey potent detail and emotion.” (from Booklist)

If you’d like a spanking new copy of Karma–let me know in the comments! This giveaway runs from June 28 to July 1, and is open to US and Canadian residents. I’ll pick a winner on July 2 using Random Number Generator.

Do check out the other giveaways too! This Blog Hop is hosted by Aislynn of Stitch Read Cook, Chrystal of Snow Drop Dreams and Carmel of Rabid Reads. Please click on the linky to see the full list of participating blogs–I don’t know how to post the list here.

(All book-related information in this post is from the author’s website.)

Update: Thank you to all who entered this giveaway. The winner as picked by random.org was #15 — Shannon of Giraffe Days.