The Widows of Malabar Hill: Sujata Massey

Published by Soho Press, Inc., 2018, 400 pages.

This is more than just a crime novel: by setting it in India in the early 1900s, Sujata Massey paints a vivid portrait of the country and especially of the lives of the women at the time.

The book starts in Bombay in 1921. The British are still in India, and women are, for the most part, expected to stay at home. Perveen Mistry is an exception. The daughter of a well-known lawyer from the Parsi community, she has been encouraged to study and is now the only female solicitor in Bombay, practicing in her father’s law firm. She works on contracts—as a woman, she is not allowed to argue cases in court. Tellingly, her business card says P.J. Mistry, hiding her gender: most people are uncomfortable dealing with a woman lawyer.  

Perveen is working on the estate settlement of Omar Farid, a Muslim textile-mill owner and a client of the firm, who died two months ago, leaving behind three widows—Razia, Sakina and Mumtaz—and four children. The firm receives a letter from the appointed estate trustee, Mr. Faisal Mukri, saying that the widows want to donate their assets to the family’s waqf—a charitable trust set up for the needy but which also pays small dividends to specified relatives. Perveen finds this odd and suspects that they have been badly advised.

She takes it upon herself to talk to the women, to lay out the facts and find out if they want to stick to their decision. Since the women are in purdah—which means they are secluded from the outside world and do not see men from outside their family—they agree to see Perveen.

She gains entrance into the household. Mukri turns out to be controlling and rude and is not happy about giving Perveen access to the women but cannot stop her. Perveen’s suspicions are justified: when she talks to the widows, she realizes that they have not really understood what they are giving up.

As she starts to get involved with the widows, there is a murder in the house. Although the women try to portray their family as a large, close one, where they look out for each other, the truth is a lot more complicated. They are all hiding something: could one of them be a murderer?

But they are not the only ones with secrets: Perveen has hers too. She fell in love with and married a young man called Cyrus four years ago and moved with him to Calcutta. The move was a huge culture shock for her: Cyrus’s family was extremely conservative, unlike Perveen’s family, and Cyrus turned out to be abusive. Perveen managed to escape the marriage and move back to Bombay and put her life together again. But her past isn’t done with her: one day, she glimpses a man who looks like Cyrus. Is he in Bombay looking for her? And who is the strange man hanging around the street opposite the Mistry offices?

The book moves between 1916, when Perveen is studying law in Bombay and meets Cyrus, and 1921, when the murder takes place. Sujata Massey brings the period to life, including the relationship between the British and the Indians. Her descriptions of Calcutta and especially of Bombay are so vivid that I felt I was actually there.

But what I found particularly fascinating—and what is really at the centre of this book—was the place of women in society. Through Perveen, the three widows, and Perveen’s closest friend, Alice, a young gay woman who is the daughter of a high-ranking British official, Massey shines a light on the lives that history often overlooks.

Perveen is based on a real woman, Cornelia Sorabhji, a Parsi woman born in 1866, who was India’s first woman lawyer. She was also the first woman to graduate from Bombay University and to study law at Oxford. Cornelia was also a social reformer, who believed that for political reform to be successful, women had to be educated. Like Hidden Lives, which I reviewed earlier, this book brings home how much has changed for women—and how there is left to do.

This is the first in a series, and I am looking forward to reading the others. Perveen is a feisty, independent woman, and I enjoyed spending time in her company.

Buy from UK / USA

4 thoughts on “The Widows of Malabar Hill: Sujata Massey

  1. Sophie

    Your article comes at the right time, Suroor! I’ve discovered and have been enjoying Abir Mukherjee’s crime novels series, which take place in Calcutta, at more or less the same time as the one you describe, and I’m hooked!
    I was wondering if there was some other series I would start, and tadaam! Here’s the answer! 😀

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