Book Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
The Widows of Malabar Hill, inspired by the woman who made history to become India’s first female lawyer, is the first installment of a new mystery series. Sujata Massey introduces us to Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Parsi family living in Bombay of the 1920’s. She attended law school at Oxford, and now works for her father’s firm, but because she is a woman, cannot fill the role of solicitor and appear in court. She instead is tasked with examining paperwork and doing research for contracts, wills, and settlements. She chafes at this, since she is entirely capable of being a full-fledged attorney, but it is simply not done at that time in that place.
She is assigned to review the execution of the will of a wealthy Muslim mill owner, Omar Farid, who has left behind three widows and several children. The widows live in full purdah, strict seclusion, never leaving their home or speaking to any men from the outside. Perveen notices inconsistencies in the signatures on the settlement paperwork, and fearing the wives are being taken advantage of, she is granted permission to speak to them in person for clarification. As a woman, she is uniquely able to do this. But her inquiries spark conflict within the Farid household that escalates to murder. Now she must add that factor to her sleuthing about what is really going on within this cloistered space, as she attempts to ensure the family is protected.
Perveen, a sympathetic heroine, is sharp, strong-willed and independent, but also compassionate, with a painful back-story, fleshed out within a secondary plotline. She fights for justice in a system where women’s rights and relationships shaped by religious and cultural norms are complicated and fraught. These conventions frustrate her, but she is insightful enough to recognize she must stay within the rules to achieve her ends.
The characters are unique and well-described. You sympathize with Perveen as she wages an uphill battle in a man’s world, in which some of her best attributes get her in trouble and are a source of impatience and derision even among those close to her. In this novel of place, the author deftly provides richly drawn cultural and period details of social interaction, architecture, politics and gender dynamics as a backdrop to the drama unfolding in Perveen’s life and that of her clients. Multicultural Bombay comes to life with engaging descriptions of the city itself, the enigmatic world of the Muslim purdah and Parsi cultural traditions, especially as they affect the lives of women.
This story can be enjoyed by both mystery and historical fiction lovers alike. It provides a fascinating setting, engaging characters, a mystery with twists and historical detail in which a strong female lead is both a source of sympathy and admiration. If you enjoy this book, the next in the series is The Satapur Moonstone. For more from this author, you may also want to check out her first set of mysteries, eleven volumes featuring a current day heroine Rei Shimura, set in Tokyo, the first of which is The Salaryman’s Wife.