Widows of Malabar Hill (Massey)

The Widows of Malabar Hill  (A Mystery of 1920s Bombay, 1)
Sujata Massey, 2018
Soho Press
400 pp.

1920s India: Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female lawyer, is investigating a suspicious will on behalf of three Muslim widows living in full purdah when the case takes a turn toward the murderous. The author of the Agatha and Macavity Award-winning Rei Shimura novels brings us an atmospheric new historical mystery with a captivating heroine.

Inspired in part by the woman who made history as India’s first female attorney, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay as well as the debut of a sharp and promising new sleuth.

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 women’s legal rights especially important to her.

Mistry Law has been appointed to execute the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen examines the paperwork, she notices something strange: all three of the wives have signed over their full inheritance to a charity.

What will they live on?

Perveen is suspicious, especially since one of the widows has signed her form with an X—meaning she probably couldn’t even read the document. The Farid widows live in full purdah—in 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 were correct when tensions escalate to murder. Now it is her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that no innocent women or children are in further danger. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 4, 1964
Where—Sussex, England, UK
Raised—California, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, USA
Education—B.A., Johns Hopkins University
Awards—Agatha Award; Macivity Award
Currently—lives in Baltimore, Maryland

Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany. She immigrated with her family to the United States in the late 1960s, ultimately settling in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in the Writing Seminars from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore Maryland.

After college, Sujata spent five years as a features reporter for The Baltimore Evening Sun. She then moved to Japan with her husband, who was serving as a medical officer with the US Navy. Sujata took up the study of Japanese, ikebana and cooking, all the while teaching English and traveling throughout Japan.

In her home in the Yokohama suburbs, she began writing her first mystery novel about Rei Shimura, a young Japanese-American woman in Tokyo. That book, The Salaryman’s Wife won the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery of 1997 and was followe by ten more books that mixed the Japanese cultural arts with murder.

A decade ago, Sujata put Japan on pause to write about India, a country that she has visited with her family since the time she was nine. Her interest especially grew after the adoption of her two children, who were born in Kerala.

Sujata decided to write fiction set in Calcutta during the late colonial period because she was intrigued by the untold stories of the Indians and Europeans who’d once inhabited landmark buildings that were being knocked down so shopping malls and mega apartment towers could go up. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
(Starred review.) [An] outstanding series launch…. The period detail and thoughtful characterizations, especially of the capable, fiercely independent lead, bode well for future installments.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) [Massey] does a wonderful job of taking life in India at the beginning of the 20th century.… The two plotlines wonderfully depict the development of the main character and the mystery as it unfolds.… Fresh and original.
Library Journal

(Starred review.) [A]n…unusual perspective on women’s rights and relationships, [while] readers are treated to a full viewof historical downtown Bombay…. Each of the many characters is uniquely described…. [A] well-constructed puzzle.

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Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Perveen Mistry is in a historically groundbreaking role: she is representing the rights of female clients, some of whom have never before had any access to legal protection because of religious law, limited education, or patriarchal restrictions that greatly disadvantage them. Perveen is the perfect female lawyer to represent women’s rights, since she herself has had terrible legal problems and has seen how frustrating it is to have no power under the law. How much moredifficultiPerveen’sjobthan a contemporaryfemalelawyer’s?Did any of her encounters particularly frustrate or anger you as a reader? Did she face problems that you couldn’t imagine a lawyer today facing? On the other hand, have things not changed as much as we think?

2. What do you make of Perveen’s last meeting with Cyrus? How would you have felt in her position?

3. The difference between "modern" and "orthodox" religiosity is an important one in this book. Perveen’s parents, the Mistrys, are depicted as modern Parsis who educate their daughter and hope she will have a career. The Sodawallas, meanwhile are orthodox Parsis who still obey ancient purity laws that are now thought to be unhealthy and who expect their new daughter-in-law to leave her education behind and be a traditional housewife. The gap in the two families’ beliefs becomes violent and heartbreaking. How has this conversation about religious orthodoxy changed since the 1920s? How does it still relate to our 21st-century societies?

4. Why do you think Behnoush Sodawalla is so insistent that Perveen isolate herself? What do you think are the real reasons behind her strict Parsi traditionalism?

5. Meanwhile, in the Farid house in Bombay, the Muslim widows live in purdah, another form of religious orthodoxy. How do the Muslim and Parsi restrictions on women differ? How do they overlap? From each of the Farid widows’ points of view, what would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of living in purdah? Were you surprised by their decision to leave purdah at the end of the book?

6. What role does class play in the novel? How different would Perveen’s choices have been if she had not been from such a wealthy family? Do you think she would have been more or less likely to marry Cyrus, or more or less likely to leave him? What other choices of hers would have been impossible if she had come from a poor or middle-class family?

7. Meanwhile, Perveen is very accepting of her best friend’s homosexuality, but Alice’s parents are clearly not. How do you think Alice’s situation might have been different if she had not been as wealthy? How much advantage does she have as an expatriate? How do you think the flowering women’s rights movement will affect her? Do you think she’ll end up finding more freedom and happiness in India, as she hopes, or do you think she will eventually find gender roles and sexuality there to be just as stifling?

(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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