Unless you’re a member of England’s Lincoln’s Inn or an avid Google Doodles follower, odds are you’ve probably never heard of Cornelia Sorabji or Mithan Tata Lam. Sorabji was the first woman to graduate from the University of Bombay, the first woman to read law at Oxford and India’s first female solicitor, while Lam also studied at Oxford and was the first Indian female barrister admitted to the Bombay High Court in 1923. Sujata Massey, author of 11 mysteries featuring Rei Shimura, a mixed-race Japanese American sleuth, discovered these pioneering women’s stories while researching 2013’s “The Sleeping Dictionary,” a historical novel set in Calcutta around the end of British colonial rule. Unable to let go of these fascinating historical figures, Massey transformed them into one Perveen Mistry, who first appeared in a 2015 novella and now in the full-length novel “The Widows of Malabar Hill.”
Perveen studied law at Oxford and by 1921 is back in Bombay, practicing at the firm led by her father, the esteemed Parsi barrister Jamshedji Mistry. Despite Perveen’s family wealth and influence in law and commerce, her legal training and fluency in several languages, as a woman, she’s not allowed admittance to the bar, which relegates Perveen to the offices of Mistry Law, reviewing and translating contracts and wills, preparing legal briefs, doing the accounting and advising on legal strategies argued by her father in the High Court.
While her father is out arguing a case, Perveen reviews a letter from Faisal Mukri, the household agent of Omar Farid, the wealthy, recently deceased owner of a Bombay textile mill. Mukri has forwarded a document to Mistry Law, the Farid estate’s executors, signed by the deceased’s three widows, with instructions to relinquish their portions of their husband’s assets to the family’s wakf, an irrevocable trust that under Islamic law must be used for specific charitable purposes and that would pay only a small dividend to the women. Perveen questions the authenticity of the signatures and is suspicious that the women, who live in seclusion as purdanashins, might not understand the consequences of giving away assets that could provide them with a secure future. Perveen discovers that her father, because of the women’s isolation from society and resulting lack of contact with men, has never spoken with the trio, despite being the estate’s executor. She resolves to speak directly with the widows at their Malabar Hill estate.
Perveen’s drive to protect the widows’ interests springs not just from her professional commitment to adhering to Islamic law or sense of social justice but also her own disastrous courtship and marriage to Cyrus Sodawalla, a soda and alcohol bottler whom she had met some five years before when she sat in on law classes at the University of Bombay’s Elphinstone College. Flashbacks relate the taunting and harassment Perveen endured at the hands of her all-male classmates and the welcome respite — not to mention passion — presented by the dashing, curly haired young man whose search for a suitable teenage bride brings him and his Parsi parents to Bombay from Calcutta to conduct marital interviews. In opposition to his family’s wishes, Cyrus becomes enchanted with the intelligent, twentysomething Perveen. She too is smitten — with Cyrus’ good looks and stylish clothes, with how he talks to her as an equal, with his bold advances when they defy convention to be alone at Bandra Beach. “While reading a novel, she’d once come across the phrase ‘wanton woman.’ It had sounded awful. She had traveled to Bandra fearful that Cyrus might take liberties. Now she reveled in them. She was taking her own liberties with him. Wasn’t this liberation?”
Massey, who displayed a keen sense for cultural detail and nuance in her Rei Shimura mysteries, does an excellent job here intercutting the tale of Perveen’s romantic courtship, ill-fated marriage and escape from Cyrus and his parents’ strict Zoroastrian household in Calcutta with her quest for fair treatment of the three devout Muslim widows. As a result, the novel makes the complex religious and legal diversity of India understandable while illuminating the apparent divisions within religious groups whose members struggle between devotion to the old ways and those of the increasingly modernizing world. Blending these weightier issues with vivid descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of Bombay and Calcutta, it is easy to forget that this sensory-rich novel is a mystery until the tension among the principals of the Farid household erupts to the point that someone is killed, with suspicion falling on the widows who “stay behind the veil” as well as their various children, servants and employees of the textile mill, all of whom have their own motives and designs on the fortune.
Perveen’s unique position as a woman, a member of the small philanthropically driven and influential Parsi community and a British-educated solicitor means she can serve as the linchpin among various facets of Bombay culture and society that have a stake in solving the homicide — the all-male police force, which fears religious backlash if it is discovered that it violated the Hanafi Muslim women’s religious beliefs and modesty; the English, represented by Sir David Hobson-Jones of the governor-general’s office, who have a stake in maintaining British rule of law in a region that simmers with desire for Indian self-rule; and the widows themselves, whose seclusion and naïveté make them susceptible to fraud and abuse from all sides. Perveen is aided by her college friend, the free-thinking mathematician Alice Hobson-Jones, and her investigations aim to reveal not only the identity of the killer but also the indignities suffered by women of all faiths in a world where the odds are stacked against them from the start.
Perveen’s dogged pursuit of truth and justice for her clients is reminiscent of the debuts of Anne Perry’s Charlotte Ellison Pitt and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. But the multicultural, multi-faith milieu in which Perveen lives, works and attempts to find love both illuminates a bygone era and offers a thoughtful perspective relevant to today’s focus on women’s rights and equality. When this singular heroine and her friend Alice raise their glasses at the end of this rousing novel and toast to “the power of women!” one suspects that there will be a growing legion of readers who heartily agree.
Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, an editor and author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.