Books

The Widows of Malabar Hill – Sujata Massey

The front cover of the paperback
The front cover of the paperback

Having said I’m not into the Crime novel genre, I appear to have read two of them back to back!

But you see, when the main protagonist has the surname of Mistry (as my surname is) I felt a personal obligation.

As an aside, this isn’t always the case. After reading one book by Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) I was left so traumatised that I can’t, just at the moment anyway, read anything else by him. It was extremely good, but the subject matter and the arc of the story just left me in bits.

Incidentally, the main characters in this book are Zoroastrian, as was one of the main characters in A Fine Balance. I asked my dad about the surname. And he thought it meant carpenter, or craftsman. He said it was frequently used by many types of Gujarati people (Gujarat is a state in India where my folks are originally from), be they Hindu, Muslim or Parsi (the Indian term for Zoroastrians).

But enough about history and back to the story at hand. It’s set, errr, back in history, in the early part of the 20th Century, mainly in Bombay (now Mumbai). Perveen Mistry is the first female solicitor to practise in Bombay. Her story is fictional but was inspired by a real woman lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji, who’s mini biog at the end of the book is a fascinating read.

It is 1921 and Perveen has been working for a short time at her father’s practice after studying law at Oxford. A case comes up to sort out the estate of a deceased man who has left three wives, children and a business. What starts off as a routine administrative task becomes complicated by suspicion of duplicity, a murder and the fact that these wives follow a custom of purdahnashin – living in seclusion and completely away from the male gaze.

The story flits back and forth between this case and Perveen’s life a few years before. As well an intriguing ‘Who Done It’, it weaves an interesting tapestry of the lives of people in Bombay at that time. The fairly tolerant juxtaposition of different religious practices and conventions, the casual corruption, and the background tensions of the British presence.

The narrative has an interesting style. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on why but it sounded different somehow. Then it occurred to me that it was like an Indian person speaking English. Excellent English, but more precise and with less colloquialisms than a native speaker might use. Once I got that, it seemed to draw me in more to the time and place of the book. I’m assuming it’s deliberate, as the author was born in England, so it’s really quite clever.

I love a book that is able to keep my interest in the story and able to teach me something new, about different cultures, places and times. This did all that and came with a satisfying conclusion. And luckily for me, it is the first in a series.

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