The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first in a series of mysteries by Sujata Massey, set in 1920s India. Perveen Mistry, the first female lawyer in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) works as a solicitor in her father’s law firm, but she is not allowed to argue cases in court. When one of her father’s clients, a wealthy Muslim mill owner, dies, his three widows appear to have signed over their inheritance to the family’s charitable foundation. Perveen realizes they might not have realized the full implications of this, since it would leave them and their children with nothing on which to live. The widows live in purdah, strict seclusion from the outside world, and can talk to men only through a screen. Perveen realizes that she can work with the widows and find out what’s really going on, while her father cannot. With her father’s support, Perveen goes to the widows’ mansion on Malabar Hill, a wealthy area of Bombay, and talks to them. She discovers that her initial suspicion was correct, and the widows did not realize they were signing away their whole inheritance. The family’s estate agent, the man who convinced them to give all their money to a charity, is hostile to Perveen and sends her away while she is interviewing one of the widows. On Perveen’s return visit to the mansion, she finds the dead body of the estate agent and realizes that one of the household must have murdered him. The widows and their children are in great danger. Or is one of them the murderer?
Perveen’s investigation of the murder on Malabar Hill alternates with chapters about her own past, set in 1916-1917. It becomes clear, early in the book, that Perveen had been through a traumatic experience as a very young woman, and the story of what happened to her gradually unfolds in these chapters. We learn of her law studies in Bombay, where her male classmates humiliated her and played practical jokes on her, and her professors refused to give her any support. And we learn of her disastrous marriage to a man she thought she loved, but who turned out to be a very different person from the one she thought he would be. These chapters, about her efforts to be free of her husband and her abusive in-laws, enhance our understanding of Perveen’s character, as we come to see how she became an advocate for social justice.
Sujata Massey is excellent at conveying a sense of the great variety of cultures and religions in 1920s Bombay. Perveen and her family are Parsi, descendants of people who immigrated from Persia (Iran) centuries before. They practice the Zoroastrian religion, and readers of this novel learn much about Zoroastrian beliefs and practices, and the differences between “modern” believers like Perveen and her family and “orthodox” believers like Perveen’s in-laws. As a lawyer, Perveen works with people of many different cultures and religions, including Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. She is a supporter of independence for India, but at the same time she enjoys a close friendship with Alice, a young Englishwoman, the daughter of a leading official in the British colonial government, who was her classmate at Oxford.
Perveen is a wonderful character, highly intelligent and compassionate. I am looking forward to reading about her future cases. Although Perveen is fictional, she is inspired by a real person, Cornelia Sorabji, who was the first female lawyer in India. Massey provides a biographical note about her, as well as notes about the Zoroastrian religion and the various cultures of 1920s India. She also includes recipes at the end of the book. Her descriptions of the food that Perveen and her family eat are mouthwatering, and are another of the book’s many strengths.
The Widows of Malabar Hill is available, under the title A Murder on Malabar Hill, from the Hatcher Graduate Library.