According to the book jacket, this is “a mystery of 1920s India” and that was enough to make me very curious. “The Widows of Malabar Hill” is a murder mystery, and a fine one at that, but it is also a picture of Bombay (not sure why it’s Bombay and not Mumbai) shortly after WWI from the point of view of a young Parsi woman named Perveen Mistry. Through her, Sujata Massey immerses the reader in a world that straddles the traditional and the modern. It’s 1921 and the British still rule India, but independence movements are on the rise. Opportunities for women to study and work are slowly beginning to present themselves, while purdah — or the seclusion of women — is still practiced within some communities. Perveen is a woman who has gone abroad to study law but is not allowed to take the bar in India because she is a woman. She can, however, assist her father in his practice and it is in this capacity that Perveen helps solve a murder.
The novel opens in February of 1921. The patriarch of the esteemed Farid family has died, leaving three wives and several small children behind. The three widows — Ravia, Sakina, and Mumtaz — are purdahnashins,meaning they, as devout conservative Muslims, practice strict seclusion. They are not seen outside their home and do not meet directly with any men. After their husband’s death, his handpicked estate agent Faisal Mukri is the only man allowed to speak with them and that is through a grate in the wall. The lawyer handling the Farid household’s estate matters is Perveen’s father Jamshedji Mistry. When the Farid family’s paperwork indicates that the widows have signed away much of their inheritance, it is up to Perveen to meet with them and find out if they understand what they have done and truly consent to it. Her presence is not welcomed by the Farids’ guard or by Mukri, but the widows have much to tell and to learn. The sudden, bloody murder of Mukri and the arrest of the house guard leave the Farid women alone and without protection while a murderer could still be on the loose. It is up to Perveen, with some help from her friends, to discover who committed the murder and why.
On the way to unraveling the mystery, Massey provides a lot of fascinating details about law and religion in India. For example, on the street where the Mistrys practice, one would find British, Hindu and Muslim law offices as well. Parsis, i.e, Indian-born Zoroastrians like Perveen and her family, accounted for 6% of the population of Bombay but one third of its lawyers! We also learn that Muslims were not the only people known to practice the seclusion of women, that divorce laws favored the man and his family in a most outrageous way, and that marriage could very easily turn into a sort of prison for a woman.
In doing research for this novel, Massey studied the life and writings of some of the first women lawyers in India, and as a result, the character Perveen comes across as a very real person. In parallel to the story unfolding in 1921, Massey goes back to 1917 to provide some backstory on Perveen. These chapters were among my favorites even though they contain information that is painful to read. Perveen becomes a fearless advocate for the Farid women and their children because of what happened to her as a young woman trying to study law in India and because of her involvement in a relationship with a man named Cyrus Sodawalla. I don’t want to spoil it, but their story is quite troubled.
The second novel in the Perveen Mistry series is out this month, and I suspect that Massey will have several more novels’ worth of material. This first book is filled with interesting support characters such as the Sikh detective Singh; Perveen’s brother Rustom, who runs the Mistry construction company; and Perveen’s friend from her university days in England Alice Hobson-Jones, a math whiz and lesbian whose father is a high ranking British official in Bombay. I’m looking forward to reading more Perveen Mistry novels. Anyone interested in a fine mystery and learning more about characters and cultures outside of the white Western world would find this novel enjoyable and informative.