Crime and History in “The Widows of Malabar Hill”

March 12, 2018   •   By Kim Fay

The Widows of Malabar Hill

Sujata Massey

WHEN THE STAR-STUDDED REMAKE of Murder on the Orient Express came out last year, my mom decided to read the book. Her verdict: meh. Granted, she was a newbie to the mystery genre, having just come to it through Deborah Crombie. She loves Crombie’s popular police procedurals, in which the protagonists’ personal lives are as integral to the plot as tracking down the murderer. This set an expectation: that a mystery dovetails with domestic fiction (in all its various forms). It also made the classic tale from Agatha Christie feel emotionally bare-bones in comparison.

This hybrid approach in Crombie’s books is becoming more of a norm in mysteries — even in hard-boiled stories. Subgenres overlap, and because of this a single book can find itself in more than one section in a bookshop. Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill is one such aggregate: traditional mystery, domestic fiction, historical novel, and even legal thriller, since the main character, Perveen Mistry, is one of India’s pioneering female lawyers. It is a series debut, but not Massey’s first novel. She previously wrote a mystery series about a salaryman’s wife in Japan and historical fiction set in India, including the mystery novella Outnumbered at Oxford, which introduced Perveen to the literary world.

Living in Bombay in 1921 at the opening of The Widows of Malabar Hill, the character of Perveen is inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, the first female graduate of Bombay University, the first woman to study law at Oxford University, and the first woman to practice law in India. Sorabji took a great interest in social reform, and along with child marriage, she was concerned about the lack of legal representation for purdahnashins, women who were forbidden to interact with the outside male world. She drew attention to the injustice these women risked when their husbands died, a knotty and compelling issue that drives the plot of The Widows of Malabar Hill.

Perveen is working for her father’s law firm when one of their clients passes away. Omar Farid leaves behind the three widows that give the novel its title. The estate’s trustee, Faisal Mukri, has informed the Mistry House legal firm that the widows want to give up their dowers and donate them to the family wakf. Dowers are an inheritance guaranteed a woman after her spouse dies or divorces her, and wakfs are endowments that provide funds to a chosen charity while paying dividends to the inheritors. Since the widows are Muslim and cannot mingle with men, Perveen visits them to iron out the details.

Her intent is to make sure she understands the finer points of the trustee’s request. Mohammedan law is complex and unfamiliar to her, as are the dynamics of a multiwife family. She is venturing into the unknown when she enters the lives of Razia, the first and eldest wife, scarcely 30 years old; Sakina, the courteous and accommodating second wife; and Mumtaz, a musician Omar Farid met just five months before he died in the red-light district of Falkland Road.

Mumtaz, the third wife, was quite brown: natural for someone who’d not been sheltered her whole life. She was not as alluring as Perveen had expected. Her hair was scraped into a messy braid, and her face was puffy and tired looking. Another difference between her and the other wives was her dress. All the wives wore borderless black saris. But while Sakina wore silk chiffon and Razia tussah silk, Mumtaz wore a baggy sari of cheaply dyed black cotton — a fabric more likely to be worn by a poor woman than a rich one.

But it is not just the differences in appearances that capture Perveen’s attention:

Perveen had the sense Razia was heavily grieving her husband. Perhaps she felt the burden of the whole household upon her in addition to the emotional loss. Mumtaz and Sakina both looked somber. It made Perveen wonder about how Omar Farid’s relationship with each woman had been, whether he had shown a different side of himself to each one, or if he had loved one more intensely than the others.

This question soon raises concern when Perveen speaks with the second wife, Sakina, alone. Sakina is more than happy to donate her dower jewelry to the family wakf, and when Perveen tells her that Mr. Mukri changed the charitable purpose of the wakf from a foundation to benefit injured veterans to a school for impoverished Muslim boys, she agrees with this too. Then Perveen explains that only a judge can approve such a change. Fine, Sakina says, have Mukri-sahib make the arrangements. But it is not Mr. Mukri’s role to do this. Razia, not Mr. Mukri, was appointed mutawalli, the administrator of the wakf, by Omar Farid.

Sakina is shocked to learn that her deceased husband would bestow such a privilege on Razia, clearly a statement about his feelings for his first wife, and with this revelation a world of secrets breaks open. When Mr. Mukri is murdered inside the widows’ home, the women naturally fall under suspicion. Because Perveen is the only female solicitor available, questioning the widows becomes solely her responsibility. As she delves further into their lives, she finds herself affected not just professionally, but personally, when certain aspects of their confinement overlap with painful experiences from her past.

The Widows of Malabar Hill moves back and forth between 1921, when the current story line plays out, and 1916, when Perveen falls in love with and marries Cyrus Sodawalla, a young man from Calcutta. As is the custom, she leaves her family in Bombay to live with her in-laws, where life turns out to be far more traditional than anything she has ever known. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the marriage ends, and in any case, the romance is far less interesting than Perveen’s personal struggles as a wife.

She is expected to spend her days helping her mother-in-law in the kitchen; the local university will not admit her unless her application is cosigned by a responsible, employed family member; and the first time she gets her period in her new home, her maid leads her to a room in a remote part of the house: “Gita opened a metal door that was just slightly taller than Perveen. The cloying smell of urine hit her first. Was it a latrine?” The space is about 12 by eight feet, with a narrow iron cot, a straight-backed chair, and a table with three small piles containing rough cotton saris, menstrual cloths, and stained towels.

Perveen is informed that she will stay in this disheartening cell during binamazi, the Zoroastrian term for menstruation. Literally, it means “the state of being without prayer.” She is ordered to remain there for the full duration of her period, plus one extra day, since it is believed she will bring disease to anyone she comes in contact with. When she protests, her mother-in-law declares, “If you leave this room — you will leave this house forever.” At this point, Perveen still loves her husband, so she endures.

Massey writes naturally in the mystery genre. The crime plot holds up, with a clever, if possibly too subtle, twist at the end. But it is historically grounded moments that give the novel its rich appeal. The Widows of Malabar Hill is woven through with cultural insights, not only into the treatment of women in 1910s and 1920s India, but also into the quirks of British colonialism and the diversity of India’s religions. Beyond the majority Hindu religion, the country is home to minorities of Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis. Perveen is a Parsi, or Persian, whose descendants were followers of the prophet Zoroaster. Parsis emigrated to India to avoid persecution by the Muslims, and in the 17th century, the British bid them to Bombay to “build up an old, ruined Portuguese fort into a modern walled city.” At the time in which the novel is set, Parsis made up six percent of Bombay’s population and one-third of its lawyers.

Because of her background, Perveen’s attempts to solve the murder are complicated by more than the fact that she is a woman, with limitations that range from being discouraged from going out alone at night to not being allowed to practice law in the courts. She must also maneuver the cultural and religious differences that separate her from the widows. It’s not surprising that none of these impediments stops her (much). Perveen is the kind of plucky, determined, practical, wounded, ahead-of-her-time protagonist an avid clique of mystery readers adore. She is destined to find a home with fans of like-minded female investigators such as Mary Russell and Maisie Dobbs, whose creators, like Massey, deftly anchor their solid plots in the realities, and challenges, of their times.


Kim Fay is the author of The Map of Lost Memories.