Bombay’s Legal Detective
Agatha and Macavity Award-winning author Sujata Massey’s latest novel, The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Press, 2018), is the first in her new historical mystery series. Set in 1920s India, it introduces readers to the intrepid new sleuth, Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female lawyer. Assigned to execute the will of a wealthy Muslim businessman, she suspects his three widows may have given up their inheritance without fully understanding their rights. Her investigation exposes a number of secrets and quickly turns deadly.
Perveen is inspired in part by India’s first female lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji. Massey first learned of Sorabji when she was doing research for another novel. “I was struck by Cornelia’s initiative to push for work as a lawyer when so many firms and courts refused to recognize her.” Her character faces similar discrimination from law firms and local police but fortunately has the full support of her family, especially from her father, who is also a lawyer. Asked if the family’s passionate push toward further education would have been unusual at the time, Massey explains, “Parental support of women’s education was a matter of their personalities and/or affluence.”
The religious beliefs of Perveen’s family also play a part. The Mistrys are Parsis, Indian-born Zoroastrians. “One of the tenets of the Parsi faith is to do good in the world, so they shared their good fortune by creating a lot of schools and hospitals. Parsi support of women’s education flowed from that initiative.”
Setting her novel in the 1920s allowed Massey to explore changing attitudes about traditional customs, particularly those that relate to women, like menstrual seclusion and purdah. “During the late colonial period, there was a lot of talk within the various religious communities about whether to hold fast to tradition or allow for changes, which might be seen as just for women and the underprivileged or as adapting to requests from the British powers above.
The Parsis held the most progressive views on women’s education and work, yet some elders interpreted religious doctrine about cleanliness into an insistence on keeping menstruating women apart from the household.” This is something Perveen experiences first hand. “I wrote about menstrual seclusion and other restrictions on women’s rights because Perveen had the experience of becoming a new daughter in a different household once she married. This family situation is common among most religions in India.”
Perveen also comes across another clash between traditional and more modern customs when she works with her three widowed clients. Unlike Perveen, they live in full purdah. Massey explains, “Purdah refers to the seclusion of women and girls all the time: that is, they can visit with other women, their fathers, and husbands, but not be seen or spend time with other males. Purdah was practiced mostly in wealthy or noble Muslim families that could afford it, and also with some conservative Hindu royal families.”
Women’s rights and empowerment are so important to Perveen in this novel, I asked Massey if this is a theme she hopes to explore further in the series. “Perveen’s passion evolves from her progressive family background and her own horror at not being able to control her life after she makes an impulsive marriage. While this is a feminist mystery series, my interest is showing compassion for all my characters, regardless of their base beliefs.”
Though the series is set one hundred years ago, Perveen’s struggles feel in some ways very modern. Massey agrees: “Ironically, the early 20th-century struggles for civil rights are being replayed now in the United States, as the U.S. government strives to restrict women’s rights to birth control, abortion, the legal process after a sexual assault, and discrimination at work. Perveen Mistry would have a lot to say about it.”
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Janice Derr is a librarian, an avid reader of historical fiction, and a frequent reviewer for HNR.