Book review

Meet Perveen Mistry, the lawyer who solves crimes in Sujata Massey’s books in 1920s’ Bombay

Sujata Massey is an American crime and historical fiction writer of Indian origin.

In her first series as a crime fiction writer, Sujata Massey created Rei Shimura, who, born of a Japanese father and a white American mother is, for the most part, an antiques expert. The standard, yet not clichéd, motifs that define Japan to a reader elsewhere in the world are fused in what become in Massey’s telling and Rei’s solving, a series of intense and engaging crime novels.

Rei made her first appearance in The Salaryman’s Wife (1997) as a poorly-paid tutor (“kyoushi”) in Tokyo. Torn between independence and a return to financial security to California where her parents live, Rei, on a visit to the town of Shiroyama, site of a historic battle in the 1870s, comes across the body of a woman later identified as the wife of an influential businessman. Rei’s ease with English is a help to the police in the tourist-crowded town. It’s the beginning of a mystery where Rei, increasingly intrigued, pieces together clues, at some point impersonating a bargirl, to infiltrate a sleazy, uxorious world. Here, business – the involvement of the Japanese mafia – and politics – US-Japan relations in the post-World War II period – are strangely interlinked.

Massey’s own background explains much of the cross-cultural references in her books. Of Indian origin, Massey was born in England and moved to the US as a child. She is mainly based in Baltimore, where she worked for some years as a journalist. She has also lived in Japan for several years with her husband.

History and mystery

In the Shimura mysteries that follow her first book, history plays an important shaping factor. In book five, The Bride’s Kimono, Rei, now in charge of several priceless kimonos, finds herself in Washington DC for an exhibition on kimonos. When a fellow passenger on the flight to DC, a Japanese woman, is found dead, with Shimura’s passport conveniently next to the corpse, the latter is of course suspected. But the crime does see resolution of a sort, revealing along the way fascinating details of the history of the kimono, and how the world’s museums work in coordination with each other.

In more recent years, Massey’s historical fiction has moved to India, especially British India. The Sleeping Dictionary features a girl from the 1930s Bengal, Pom, who becomes Sarah, and later Kamala. In the quest to secure her own freedom, Pom (or Kamala), with her gift of languages, is thrown into the independence struggle.

Travails of a pioneering woman lawyer

Perveen Mistry, who features in Massey’s most recent work A Murder on Malabar Hill – published originally as The Widows of Malabar Hill – made her first appearance in a novella titled Outnumbered at Oxford, a narrative that makes up one of four in Massey’s India Gray, published in 2015. Another novella features Kamala of The Sleeping Dictionary. In the novella, Perveen is at St Hilda’s in Oxford, studying law, which was unthinkable then for a woman, especially one from India. It is 1919, and an elderly professor seeks her help in recovering a valuable mathematical treatise. Everything points toward an Indian help who disappears soon after.

Alice Hobson-Jones, the mathematics student with whom Perveen develops a fast friendship, appears in The Widows of Malabar Hill. A mystery Perveen becomes involved in soon after her return to Bombay, having completed her legal studies in London. It is still a difficult time for a woman to be a lawyer, and Perveen works as a solicitor in her father’s firm. She can take on clients and advise them, but cannot appear in court. Perveen of course bears a distinct resemblance of the pioneering woman lawyer who sat for the British law exams in 1892 and was the first to read law at Oxford, Cornelia Sorabji, as is mentioned in Massey’s acknowledgements. The other inspiration, Massey mentions, is Mithan Tata Lam, who also read law and was the first woman admitted to the Bombay Bar in 1923.

Sorabji, on her return, was unable to secure employment in British India, for all the bias that prevailed then, and it was during Lord Curzon’s viceroyalty that she was appointed to assist in and often administer the legal matters of the “pardanashin” – the veiled women of the zenana – especially those in the princely states.

Trust and deception

It is February 1921 when Perveen finds herself involved in a case involving three pardanashin widows of a cotton mill owner, Omar Farid, who has been her father Jamshedji Mistry’s client for some time. What intrigues Perveen about the agreement signed by the widows soon after Farid’s death is not merely the signatures (a cursory cross in an instance) but also its very terms. These imply that the women, Razia, Sakina and Mumtaz, intend to give over their “mahr” – the money given to them by the groom’s family during the wedding – to a waqf to build a madrasa.

Perveen’s gender allows her to interview the women. The discrepancies between their statements and what they know and what they have been offered make her suspicious about the household agent, Faisal Mukri, appointed by Omar Farid shortly before his death. Matters take a complex turn when Mukri is found dead in the house at Malabar Hill, moments after Perveen has left the scene. A murder weapon is found conveniently near the body, and the watchman, Mohsen, was found missing the very moment of the crime. The complexity is compounded when Perveen finds to her consternation that Razia, whom she now represents, admits to having committed the crime.

In due course, and over several pages, Perveen resolves this crime. She finds the real culprit/s, with some timely help from a host of characters: her father, her friend Alice Hobson-Jones (whose knowledge of geometry and architecture come in handy), and Jayanth, a stevedore, whom Jamshedji, just before this present story begins, had successfully represented in court after Jayanth had unfairly lost his job at the Bombay docks. Perveen’s legal acumen invariably helps her get the better of patronising policemen, British and Indian. It also enables her to win the trust of the three women she advises.

Personal and professional

There are considerable detours, especially in the early pages, as Massey details the complexity of Muslim personal law (the difference between dower and mahr, for instance), the history of the Parsis beginning with the Zoroastrians going from Iran to Bombay, and the state of colonial India in the 1920s. The difficulty of imparting such essential background information is apparent when Massey has the long-time family assistant, Mustafa, offer timely and patronising advice about his own community. For instance, he appears disapproving when one of Omar Farid’s widows is casually addressed by her first name (Razia) when protocol demands that “begum” be suffixed to it.

But the intermingling of Perveen’s own past and her personal travails, with the story of the women of Malabar Hill, make for some deft plotting and pacing, and the novel becomes quite a gripping read halfway in. After a heady courtship with the Calcutta-based Cyrus Sodawalla, Perveen marries him – despite some family opposition to the alliance – only to experience heartbreak, and domestic tyranny at the hands of her very orthodox mother in law.

There is again some detailing of the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Laws of the 1860s, and the custom of “binamazi” when a menstruating woman was secluded in a room separated from the rest of the household. How Jamshedji chooses to represent his daughter in the case against the Sodawallas, and how he wins his arguments seeking judicial separation for Perveen, is really one of the highlights of the book. Cyrus reappears five years later, in 1921, for he has promised to exact revenge on Perveen and her family.

The reappearance of these ghosts of her past – a menacing Cyrus and an Alice whose arrival is more complicated but whose help turns out to be timely – all add to the mystery. In the end, of course, things do see a resolution. Perveen ties up most loose ends, as is inevitable in all good crime fiction.

A Murder On Malabar Hill, Sujata Massey, Penguin India.

[Correction and clarification: This review has been updated to include the Indian title and publisher of the same book.]

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Why do our clothes fade, tear and lose their sheen?

From purchase to the back of the wardrobe – the life-cycle of a piece of clothing.

It’s an oft repeated story - shiny new dresses and smart blazers are bought with much enthusiasm, only to end up at the back of the wardrobe, frayed, faded or misshapen. From the moment of purchase, clothes are subject to wear and tear caused by nature, manmade chemicals and....human mishandling.

Just the act of wearing clothes is enough for gradual erosion. Some bodily functions aren’t too kind on certain fabrics. Sweat - made of trace amounts of minerals, lactic acid and urea - may seem harmless. But when combined with bacteria, it can weaken and discolour clothes over time. And if you think this is something you can remedy with an antiperspirant, you’ll just make matters worse. The chemical cocktail in deodorants and antiperspirants leads to those stubborn yellowish stains that don’t yield to multiple wash cycles or scrubbing sessions. Linen, rayon, cotton and synthetic blends are especially vulnerable.

Add to that, sun exposure. Though a reliable dryer and disinfectant, the UV radiation from the sun causes clothes to fade. You needn’t even dry your clothes out in the sun; walking outside on a sunny day is enough for your clothes to gradually fade.

And then there’s what we do to our clothes when we’re not wearing them - ignoring labels, forgetting to segregate while washing and maintaining improper storage habits. You think you know how to hang a sweater? Not if you hang it just like all your shirts - gravity stretches out the neck and shoulders of heavier clothing. Shielding your clothes by leaving them in the dry-cleaning bag? You just trapped them in humidity and foul odour. Fabrics need to breathe, so they shouldn’t be languishing in plastic bags. Tossing workout clothes into the laundry bag first thing after returning home? It’s why the odour stays. Excessive moisture boosts fungal growth, so these clothes need to be hung out to dry first. Every day, a whole host of such actions unleash immense wear and tear on our clothes.

Clothes encounter maximum resistance in the wash; it’s the biggest factor behind premature degeneration of clothes. Wash sessions that don’t adhere to the rules of fabric care have a harsh impact on clothes. For starters, extra effort often backfires. Using more detergent than is indicated may seem reasonable for a tub full of soiled clothes, but it actually adds to their erosion. Aggressive scrubbing, too, is counterproductive as it worsens stains. And most clothes can be worn a few times before being put in the wash, unless of course they are sweat-soaked gym clothes. Daily washing of regulars exposes them to too much friction, hastening their wear and tear.

Different fabrics react differently to these abrasive agents. Natural fabrics include cotton, wool, silk and linen and each has distinct care requirements. Synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, are sensitive to heat and oil.

A little bit of conscious effort will help your clothes survive for longer. You can start by lessening the forces acting on the clothes while washing. Sort your clothes by fabric instead of colour while loading them in the washing machine. This helps save lighter fabrics from the friction of rubbing against heavier ones. It’s best to wash denim materials separately as they are quite coarse. For the same reason, clothes should be unzipped and buttoned before being tossed in the washing machine. Turning jeans, printed clothes and shirts inside out while loading will also ensure any abrasion is limited to the inner layers only. Avoid overloading the washing machine to reduce friction between the clothes.

Your choice of washing tools also makes a huge difference. Invest in a gentler detergent, devoid of excessive dyes, perfumes and other unnecessary chemicals. If you prefer a washing machine for its convenience, you needn’t worry anymore. The latest washing machines are far gentler, and even equipped to handle delicate clothing with minimal wear and tear.


Bosch’s range of top loading washing machines, for example, care for your everyday wear to ensure they look as good as new over time. The machines make use of the PowerWave Wash System to retain the quality of the fabrics. The WaveDrum movement adds a top-down motion to the regular round action for a thorough cleaning, while the dynamic water flow reduces the friction and pulling forces on the clothes.

Play

The intelligent system also creates water displacement for better movement of clothes, resulting in lesser tangles and clothes that retain their shape for longer. These wash cycles are also noiseless and more energy efficient as the motor is directly attached to the tub to reduce overall friction. Bosch’s top loading washing machines take the guesswork away from setting of controls by automatically choosing the right wash program based on the load. All that’s needed is a one-touch start for a wash cycle that’s free of human errors. Read more about the range here. You can also follow Bosch on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Bosch and not by the Scroll editorial team.