The Widows of Malabar Hill

Written by Sujata Massey
Review by India Edghill

In 1921 Bombay, woman are still very much third-class citizens—except in the Parsi community, where they’re second-class citizens. Perveen Mistry, daughter of brilliant lawyer Jamshedji Mistry, is the only female solicitor in Bombay. She’s not permitted to try cases in court, but being a woman lawyer does have advantages. One of the Mistrys’ clients, a wealthy Muslim, dies leaving three widows and several small children, and what seems like a perfectly straightforward estate to portion out to his survivors. But then a letter arrives at the Mistry office claiming that the three widows wish to leave all their inheritances to a charity. Perveen is deeply suspicious of the letter, and wishes to ensure that the women understand what they are agreeing to give up. Since the women are in purdah, Perveen is the only one in the Mistry office who can go into the harem quarters to interview them. The interviews leave her even more suspicious, especially since Faisal Mukri, the man left in charge of the house and estate—supposedly to ensure the well-being of the widows—tries to keep her out. Are the widows being coerced by him into giving up their rights?

Then Mukri is found stabbed to death just outside the harem door, and what seemed like a straightforward inheritance problem becomes much, much more—especially when someone seems to be targeting Perveen herself. Who killed Mukri, and who’s following Perveen? And why? Is it part of the plot against the widows, or has Perveen’s own unfortunate past come back to haunt her?

This book gives the reader a well-woven mystery, a convincing (and unusual; the Parsi community isn’t often found in fiction) Indian background, and interesting characters. This is a fascinating look behind the curtain of women’s lives in pre-Independence India. I’m very much looking forward to the next in the series!