The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1)by Published 09 Jan 2018
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Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father's law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women's rights.
Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.
The Farid widows live in purdah: strict seclusion, never leaving the women's quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate and realizes her instincts about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It's her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.
"The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1)" Reviews
This is a very well done old-fashioned historical novel and my first experience with Massey. Perveen is the only female practicing lawyer in 1921 Bombay. She is unable to argue cases in court due to the strictures of the time and instead works as a solicitor for her father’s practice. At its heart, this is a murder mystery and a good one. There is a bit of a dual timeline but it doesn’t occur every other chapter so the novel flows more smoothly than other books that have used this device.
Perveen’s experiences in 1916 and 1917 inform the woman that she is in 1921 and you can’t help but like her. She’s intelligent, feisty and thoughtful. Her unique status as a female lawyer allows her to represent and interact directly with three widows practicing purdah. I didn’t know much about the practice of seclusion and found this to be fascinating. Actually, I didn’t know much about Indian culture in general other than that the religious and language differences among the population are many and I came away from this book knowing more than I did. By reading this book, I attended a Parsi wedding and learned a little about food preparation. I never expected to like this book as much as I did.
“As the only female lawyer in Bombay, you hold a power that nobody else has,” a British government official tells Perveen Mistry in this first of a refreshingly original mystery series – and he’s right. It’s 1921, and Perveen is a solicitor in her father’s law firm. Even though she can’t appear in court, her position and gender mean she’s the only individual with the means to look into a potential instance of deception and fraud.
A Muslim mill-owner's three widows, who live in purdah with their children in his mansion on Malabar Hill, appear to have given away their rightful dower and inheritance. Perveen suspects they didn’t realize the implications of their signature, and when she visits the three individually, it appears that she’s correct. When she discovers a body on her return visit to the Farid family, she suspects a member of the household did it – but who?
There’s considerably more to the plot than a traditional murder mystery, though. Though only 23, Perveen has a professional, mature demeanor that helps her gain the widows’ confidence, and there’s a reason behind it: she’s been through a lot in her short life. Massey depicts her backstory in chapters set back in 1916. This allows for two stories running in parallel: who committed the crime at Malabar Hill, and what trauma did Perveen endure? While I was struck by the abrupt jump back in time initially, I came to feel that this increased the suspense.
The setting for this story is absolutely key, and from the Mistry residence on the city’s outskirts to the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel along the harborfront, the layout of historical Bombay is described in clear, thorough fashion (the maps at the beginning are helpful but not absolutely necessary). Perveen and her family are Parsis – descendants of immigrants from Iran – and followers of Zoroastrianism, and the novel explores the religion’s traditional and more orthodox beliefs. Bombay contains a multiplicity of cultures, classes, and languages, and I came to admire Perveen’s ability to steer a fine path through it all.
What comes through most strongly in this entertaining work, though, is the status of women, and how much Perveen had to accomplish to get where she is. The Widows of Malabar Hill also makes you think about how critical the support of family and others can be for women in desperation; where would the novel's characters have been without it?
I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.
First reviewed at Reading the Past, based on an ARC received at BookExpo last year.
I can see how many people would enjoy this series. It fell a bit flat for me. It read like a Nancy Drew mystery to me. I've upgraded my rating from two to three stars. I started thinking about it more, and I realized that because I listened to this book, I was influenced by the narrator's voice for the characters. As I said, it felt like a Nancy Drew mystery to me. I think that was due to the narrator. If I had read it, I think that the story of the widows and Perveen's own story of oppression would have melded better. So....I would definitely read it, not listen to it.
I loved the setting and time period- 1920's Bombay. The main character was a strong, smart, complicated female and the first female lawyer to boot. The mystery kept me guessing as well. Perhaps what I appreciated most was the education I received about Indian culture and laws during this time period.
Was this a knock-my-socks off book? No. But it sure was an escape! And it would make for great conversation.
Perveen Mistry is a solicitor, preparing herself for the day when women would be allowed to the Bar. Working with her father, she comes across a mysterious case in which three Muslim women, widows of the same man, want to donate away their inheritance to a wakf (Islamic trust). Curious about the case and worried about the women, who lived behind the purdah and had no contact with the outside world, Perveen decides to explore the case deeply. This gets her into a lot of trouble, and embroils her in murder.
The setting is Bombay in the 1920s. The Parsis are progressive, but not as progressive as they appear. Perveen has a background, which comes out in bits and pieces throughout the book. The book deals with women's past and their limitations and hurdles, irrespective of religion or race. While the secluded Muslim women were prey for any man (including, I would say, their husband!), Perveen herself had to face immense struggles in her life. From being harassed in college by male students to being abused by her husband's family, Perveen herself understands the gender power equations quite well.
The character of Perveen Mistry is loosely based on Cornelia Sorabji, India's first woman lawyer. She was the first Indian to study in a British university, and also holds the distinction of being the first woman to study law in Oxford University. Sorabji helped many women through her work and was an outspoken pioneer of women's rights in India and England. With such an inspiration, it is no wonder that the heroine of this book is interesting. Despite the fact that the book does not focus on an extraordinary life, it does focus on an ordinary life and the extraordinary struggles in it.
One of the things that really made an impact on me was the way female seclusion during menstruation among Parsis was depicted. I have suffered from this custom, but I did not realise that Parsis had it too. It was interesting to read about how women would be locked up in a dirty room for an entire week and not allowed to wash themselves with water. It's ridiculous! I wonder how prevalent these menstrual taboos are today. I, for one, know they are alive and kicking in my own family. It's a horrendous custom and should be outlawed, irrespective of religion.
I found this book to be very well-researched regarding the time frame, and well-researched regarding the small cultural distinctions that must have been more prevalent at the time in which it is set. Kudos to Massey for doing a brilliant job on both the historical fiction and the murder mystery angle, with a good splash of women's stories and struggles thrown in to make it all the more better.