The Widows of Malabar Hill

The Widows of Malabar Hill

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. Oma...

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Title:The Widows of Malabar Hill
Author:Sujata Massey
Rating:
Edition Language:English

The Widows of Malabar Hill Reviews

  • Cathy Cole

    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 it

    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!

  • Sarah

    “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 c

    “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.

    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

    , based on an ARC received at BookExpo last year.

  • Rhiannon Johnson

    The first book of 2018 that I will be raving to everyone about!

    Read my full review here:

  • Andrea Larson

    Sometimes I end up reading books that are unexpectedly timely. Case in point: The Widows of Malabar Hill. I picked it up for the mystery, the exotic setting and the historical time period (India 1916-21), but I ended up really appreciating its relevance to current women's issues. Watching the Golden Globes on Sunday night, I was reminded of the strong, intelligent main character, Perveen Mistry. She is based on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji, one of the first Indian female lawyers, and like Corn

    Sometimes I end up reading books that are unexpectedly timely. Case in point: The Widows of Malabar Hill. I picked it up for the mystery, the exotic setting and the historical time period (India 1916-21), but I ended up really appreciating its relevance to current women's issues. Watching the Golden Globes on Sunday night, I was reminded of the strong, intelligent main character, Perveen Mistry. She is based on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji, one of the first Indian female lawyers, and like Cornelia, Perveen faces discrimination because of her gender and her race in colonial India.

    The book alternates between two narratives. The first, which takes place in 1921 Bombay, follows Perveen as she represents three purdahnashins, women who lived in seclusion according to their religious custom. When their husband dies, his estate manager demands their inheritance, then is mysteriously killed. Moved by the plight of the women, who have no contact with the outside world and are forbidden from seeing men, Perveen seeks justice for them but ends up in danger herself.

    The second story line goes back a few years, to 1916, when Perveen marries, leaving her progressive parents behind in Bombay and moving to Calcutta to join her new in-laws. However, she finds that her marriage, and her place within it, are not at all what she expected.

    If you've been looking for a new mystery series, look no further. Beyond the issues about women's rights and the whodunit plot, Perveen is a compelling, relatable character.  It's also fascinating to learn about the various cultures interwoven into the fabric of India, and imagining the richly described world of 1920's Bombay. I can't wait for the next book in the series!

    For more info about this book, as well as the places depicted in it, see the author's web site at sujatamassey.com.

  • Kathy

    Several years ago, when I read The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey, I discovered an India of beauty, historical importance, depth, tragedy, redemption, and diversity. That book, set over a period of seventeen years, 1930 to 1947 mostly in Calcutta, stunned me with its impact on my reading life, as India became a source of interest and intrigue to me. It’s quite difficult for me to choose just one favorite book or even ten favorite books, but The Sleeping Dictionary is forever in my top ten.

    Several years ago, when I read The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey, I discovered an India of beauty, historical importance, depth, tragedy, redemption, and diversity. That book, set over a period of seventeen years, 1930 to 1947 mostly in Calcutta, stunned me with its impact on my reading life, as India became a source of interest and intrigue to me. It’s quite difficult for me to choose just one favorite book or even ten favorite books, but The Sleeping Dictionary is forever in my top ten. So, when I learned that Sujata had a new book coming out set in India, I was excited and anticipated another spectacular read. Expectations were met entirely. The Widows of Malabar Hill is another journey into India and its culture and people, this time in 1921 in Bombay. The author doesn't rest on her laurels of Calcutta. She takes us a thousand miles across India to a whole new area of intrigue. Both novels have a strong, independent female lead character, and that's not a small accomplishment in the first half of 20th century India. The struggle for women to have any control over their lives in this period of Indian history was a task of gargantuan proportions, and it is a timely entry as our country is dealing with a resurgence of women fighting to retain the progress they’ve historically made, a progress to equality. The Widows of Malabar Hill mirrors the white supremacy battle we are fighting in this country in its British white supremacy over the peoples of India, people of color.

    For Perveen Mistry, a twenty-three old Parsi woman who is the first female lawyer in Bombay, life is indeed challenging. She partners with her father in their family law firm, but the courts do not allow her to represent clients before a judge. Perveen deals with the legal paperwork side of the business. It is in this capacity that she confronts the disposition of a client's will. The challenge of this particular task is that the beneficiaries are three widows who live sequestered (in purdah) from the rest of the world and who have no direct contact with men, other than what they had with their husband.

    The first sticking point in Perveen’s attempt to do her duty is that the man appointed as household agent (person handling their money and affairs daily) for the widows isn't communicating with Perveen, except to send a letter indicating the women wish to give their inheritances to charity, in part to a charity he is establishing. Perveen insists that she must talk to each woman to ensure that their true wishes are being represented by this man, and so she visits their residence on Malabar Hill, a rather exclusive neighborhood, to do just that. The visit reveals some interesting information to and from the widows, and the decision to forfeit their inheritances is put on hold. The decision isn’t the only thing that changes. In the time that Perveen leaves the house after the interviews and returns to retrieve her forgotten briefcase, a murder occurs. With the women and their children secluded on one side of the residence, and the household agent and gate keeper on the other side, who has committed this crime? Someone gaining access from outside, or someone on the inside gaining access to the whole house? The answer lies deep in a quagmire of secrets and deceptions.

    The essence of this novel is two-fold. There is the murder mystery in which only Perveen has acccess to gaining all sides of information, and there is Perveen's story of her struggle as a woman in India, not just as a woman solicitor. The background story of the years leading up to Perveen's position in 1921 is a dramatic one. The author has chosen to tell this story in separate chapters labeled 1916 and 1917. The rest of the book, the majority of it, is designated by chapter titles and the date of 1921 with the month of that year. This arrangement works quite well, and we learn just how Perveen got to be the woman of strength and determination she is in pursuing the truth for her women clients in 1921. It also gives the reader insight into Perveen’s family and her best friend from Oxford, Alice, who deals with her own set of demands and struggles. I suspect that Alice’s life will be explored further in future books, too.

    Sujata Massey is a master at bringing both story and knowledge to readers. Learning the difference between Parsis/Parsee and Iranis and the Zoroastrian religion, difference in customs between these and Muslims, and how the British operated in Bombay during this time of British rule over India. And then, there is the description of Bombay and how it was established and built up. All this fascinating information is woven seamlessly into the narrative, making the reader better informed as well as a captivated reader.

    The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first in a new historical mystery series by Sujata Massey, so we will get to see more of Perveen Mistry and her fight for justice for her clients, her people, and herself.

    I received an advanced copy of this book from the author.

  • Tripfiction

    A mystery of 1920s BOMBAY

    This is the first novel I have read by Sujata Massey and she is a prolific writer who has set her novels in many wonderful places – Japan, USA, India…. Her experience of the locations clearly comes through in her masterful writing skills.

    The central character of Perveen Mistry was inspired by India’s earliest women lawyers who struck out to study and qualify at a time when women were heavily censored in what they could do and how they should behave.

    Perveen is the daughte

    A mystery of 1920s BOMBAY

    This is the first novel I have read by Sujata Massey and she is a prolific writer who has set her novels in many wonderful places – Japan, USA, India…. Her experience of the locations clearly comes through in her masterful writing skills.

    The central character of Perveen Mistry was inspired by India’s earliest women lawyers who struck out to study and qualify at a time when women were heavily censored in what they could do and how they should behave.

    Perveen is the daughter of a well established lawyer who has been practising for many years in Bombay and who has a reputation for thoughtful and highly competent litigation. She is fortunate to be part of a forward thinking family who respects women when, all around, women are suppressed and abused. She thus attends college in Bombay but finds herself subject to mysoginy and bullying, and eventually goes on to finish her training at St Hilda’s in Oxford.

    The three eponymous widows of the title – Sakina, Razia and Mumtaz – living on Malabar Hill, have lost their joint husband and are having to contend with a newly installed household agent, Mukri. They are in Purdah, a period lasting 4 weeks and 10 days, following the death of their husband. They live in the zenana, a part of the house for the seclusion of women, where no men (other than a husband of course) are allowed. Following a murder in the household, the normal investigative processes, carried out by men, cannot take place. It falls to Perveen to untangle the complex scenario of the hidden wives…

    Meanwhile Perveen also has her own personal issues to address in the form of handsome Cyrus Sodawalla.

    There is a great mystery to explore in this book, as the author gently develops the storyline. She is adept at describing the mores and culture of the time, which is fascinating. Perveen is a Parsi, a minority group descended from the Zoroastrians of Persia. Her family may have migrated to India maybe 500/700 years ago. And it was in the 17th Century that the British called on the Parsis to leave Gujurat and travel to Bombay and “build up an old, ruined Portuguese Fort into a modern walled city“. Cyrus would in theory seem a suitable match for her, as he is Parsi too.

    Importantly the author exposes the oftentimes miserable lives of women, living just 100 years ago. Echoes abound still today. She looks at the practise of Binamazi, menstrual seclusion, where a menstruating woman has to be kept away from other members of the household because she is ‘unclean’. But the confinement also means no access to clean water to wash and therefore compounds the notion of uncleanliness – a character even dies when in seclusion, as her underlying illness went unheeded by other members of the family.

    There are more nuggets of interesting information; it can feel at times slightly didactic but I love discovering interesting episodes and facts… fingerprinting science began in India; black dots painted on babies protect against evil… who knew!

    Concerns about drink/driving are voiced, and guidebooks to cities are readily available in households, and I wonder whether those are elements which may have crept in through a 21st Century lens? There is, however, overall a tremendous sense of 1920s Bombay, a dangerous city for women on their own. Helpfully, there is a map at the beginning of the book where one can see how various locales relate to each other.The characters even pop to Yazdani Bakery to eat cardamom buns and many more mouth-watering delicacies.

    A very enjoyable and sobering read that just took me to the streets of 1920s Bombay, all within a credible and well put together storyline. Recommended.

  • Leslie

    Perveen Mistry, first female lawyer in Bombay in 1921, takes on a case that leads to investigation into murder. Being female is in many ways a negative in this time and in this place--except for the doors that it opens for Perveen in this particular instance. A novel that combines culture, religion, mystery, history and women's rights, this is a strong first in a new series that features a compelling heroine in a lovely family.

  • Tammy

    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.

    Pervee

    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.

  • Barb in Maryland

    3.5 stars for the first in s new series by the author.

    I really liked the mystery, the setting(1921 Bombay), our heroine--just about everything in the main storyline. Young lawyer Perveen is a delight; I enjoyed watching her deal with her wily fox of a father. I am happy to see her good friend Alice again (introduced in the prequel novella 'Outnumbered at Oxford'). The mystery was clever--process of elimination gave me the killer, but not the 'why' of the murder.

    However, I had mixed feelings abo

    3.5 stars for the first in s new series by the author.

    I really liked the mystery, the setting(1921 Bombay), our heroine--just about everything in the main storyline. Young lawyer Perveen is a delight; I enjoyed watching her deal with her wily fox of a father. I am happy to see her good friend Alice again (introduced in the prequel novella 'Outnumbered at Oxford'). The mystery was clever--process of elimination gave me the killer, but not the 'why' of the murder.

    However, I had mixed feelings about this book, which is why I didn't give it the full 4 stars. The story is told in two somewhat alternating parts--'current day' (1921) and flashbacks to several years earlier. Quite frankly, I am not really sure what the author was trying for with the detailed flashback sections. I guess she was trying to give us some insight into what made our heroine tick. However, I thought the personal insights could have been handled in a briefer way.

    I will definitely read the next--I want more of Perveen and her charming father.

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