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.
Having been a fan of Sujata Massey's award-winning Rei Shimura mystery series, I was thrilled to hear about this first Perveen Mistry mystery set in 1920s Bombay, India. There are two interwoven timelines in The Widows of Malabar Hill. One is present-day Bombay in 1921 which shows us Perveen working hard to become an integral part of her father's law firm. The second timeline takes us back to 1916 so we can learn what happened to Perveen to make her the woman she is five years later.
The story itself is a version of the locked room mystery. The widows live in purdah on Sea View Street. They stay in the women's section of the house, they do not leave their home, and they do not speak to any man who is not part of the immediate household. When a man dies inside a house where few people are admitted, it's going to take knowledge of the interior workings of the place to learn the truth. As a woman, Perveen is perfect for the role of investigator. She's also perfect in another way: she's become a feminist who's passionate about the rights of women and children. She shows us how such restricted lives are led and the intricate maneuverings that must be done in order to conduct an investigation. (Some policemen are much less willing to conduct themselves according to the beliefs of those who have become a part of their investigation.)
The mystery is a strong one because readers must acquaint themselves with this unfamiliar world in order to piece together what happened. And what can I say about the setting? Massey pulled me right into this world, and I was almost on sensory overload. The old ways versus the new. Bombay's rapid growth into a vibrant major city. The various political, religious, and social factions that chafed against each other on a daily basis. And one woman, with the support of her parents, who's strong enough to stand up for what's right.
I can't wait to get my hands on the next book in the series!
A few minutes ago (it's 11:20 AM EST as I write this), I had the satisfaction of finishing reading "THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL." It's centered around India's first woman lawyer, Perveen Mistry, who had received her legal training at Oxford. The time is February 1921 and she has returned to her home in Bombay, where she has a job working in her father's law firm.
Perveen has been given the responsibility of executing the will of Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim who owned a fabric mill and had 3 wives. In the immediate aftermath of Farid's death, the 3 widows are living in strict purdah (a type of seclusion in which the widows never leave the women's quarters nor see and speak with any man outside of the residence) at the Farid residence on Malabar Hill. Whilst carefully reading the documents, Perveen notices that the widows have signed off their inheritance to a charity. What strikes Perveen as odd is that one of the widows' signature is a 'X', which is a clear indication that the widow who affixed the 'X' probably was unable to read the document. This leads Perveen to wonder how the 3 widows will be able to live and take care of themselves. She begins to suspect that maybe they may be taken advantage of by the legal guardian entrusted by Mr. Farid to handle their financial affairs. Perveen has the welfare and best interests of her clients, the 3 widows, in mind.
Perveen goes on to carry out an investigation. She makes an arrangement with the widows' legal guardian, Feisal Mukri, to come to the residence to visit the widows and to speak with each of them separately. In the process of doing so, tensions are stirred in the Farid residence and a murder takes place there that makes a straightforward matter of executing a family will into something much more perilous and uncertain. There is also something out of Perveen's recent past in Calcutta that intrudes into her present life.
"THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL" is a novel whose prose resonates on every page. It has a lot of twists and turns that will engage the reader's attention throughout. Sujata Massey is a writer who not only knows how to craft and tell a richly compelling novel. She'll leave the reader wanting more. And after almost 14 years of reading Massey's work, I'm already eager to begin reading the second novel in the Perveen Mistry Series.
This book took me completely by surprise, so much so that I read it in a single day. What a pleasure.
The book follows Perveen Mistry, a woman in her early twenties who happens to be the first female lawyer in 1920s India. She works together with her father at his law firm and in this book takes on the settling of his estate after a client's death. He had three wives, who oddly enough have all agreed to donate their inheritance to charity. Perveen finds the signatures on the document fishy and decides to investigate. The women themselves are orthodox muslims who live secluded from society and most importantly male contact, so she is in the unique position to have actual conversations with them and find out what led them to make these decisions. When a murder occurs at the widows' house the case becomes even more complex and Perveen herself ends up endangered and haunted by her own past.
There are so many things I loved about this book. The setting is incredibly unique and well developed. I could actually picture myself on the streets of 1920s Bombay. This book has taught me a lot about that particular historical setting as well as the different customs of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community who lived there at the time.
I particularly enjoyed the female empowerment aspect of this novel. While this type of agenda in a novel often feels forced and like it's being aggressively pushed down your throat, this particular book dealt with it in such an organic way that I didn't at all feel like I was being lectured about politics. Perveen's character doesn't suffer from the anachronistic modern-day feminism often employed in historical fiction but instead it feels entirely of-the-times and relevant to her particular situation. She isn't just any other Indian woman; her parents and in particular her father have actively encouraged her education and have made it possible for her to make the unusual life choices she has made and provide her with the necessary support to defy the norm. It all felt very authentic to me, which I really appreciate.
This in fact is the main red thread of this book, since it deals with a lot of themes pertaining to women's rights and under that umbrella discusses plenty of topics such as seclusion of women during menstruation, arranged marriage, female education, discriminatory laws towards women, domestic abuse and the exploitation of religious women. It also touches on the Indian independence struggle from the British Empire and includes even a small queer subplot. Overall this book manages to discuss a wide variety of important and culturally relevant topics, without making the story seem disjointed or as if a particular to-do list of needed social commentary is being checked off. It all reads like one authentic, meaningful story that could not have been told any other way.
I also really enjoyed the character of Perveen, mainly because I could completely place myself in her shoes. When she was faced with discrimination, racism, sexism, etc. I was feeling my own heartrate go up in anger. At times I actually found myself yelling at the book in frustration.
Yet she herself managed to keep calm in the face of all the injustice and still make a case for herself, which is a trait I greatly admire in anyone. Her perspective was a pleasure to read from and I honestly have not felt this connected to a main character in a long time.
The mystery at the heart of the novel was the only thing that ended up feeling a little bit lacklustre to me. While I wasn't able to predict any of it, I still felt the revelation rang a bit hollow and just didn't live up to the rest of the novel. While this could have been improved upon, I'd much rather have this be the part that's lacking instead of the world building or any of the parts I praised above.
Overall, this book was really well written and an extremely enjoyable read. I'd recommend this to everyone and will definitely be picking up the sequels!