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”. And 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!