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Set in colonial Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata), THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL is a gorgeous epic, a significant statement on women's rights, a fascinating armchair tour, and, yes, a thriller of a murder mystery. It is the debut novel in Agatha and Macavity Award winner Massey's new series, which focuses on crime-solving 1920s Bombay lawyer Parveen Mistry--Bombay's first female lawyer ever, very loosely based on an historical individual, Cornelia Sorabji. THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL will appeal to many readers for many reasons.
Massey was born to Indian and German parents in England, living in the American Midwest, and a longtime resident of Japan. She is a citizen of the world, and so is her heroine Parveen Mistry, a daughter of India's Parsi minority: an ethnic group with roots in Persia (now Iran), who practice the ancient Persian monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism. As the first Indian female lawyer, Mistry works without admission to the Bar for her father, a patrician barrister from an old and respected Parsi family.
At the beginning of THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL, it is 1921, and the self-assured, Oxford-educated Mistry visits Bombay's Malabar Hill neighborhood to verify the questionable legal documentation by which a trio of polygynist Muslim widows, Razia, Sakina, and Mumtaz, seem to cede their inheritances from their mill-owner husband to a charity for wounded veterans of all faiths and backgrounds. This is a noble aim, but is it these women's intention or that of their prickly household agent, Mr. Mukti? To find out, Mistry's father sends her to ask, because the women keep purdah, or seclusion from men. This is no Oriental fantasy: the women seclude themselves by choice, not by direct male compulsion, given their status as widows, homeowners, and heiresses. But in this and other regards, these intelligent, pragmatic women don't always understand their own motivations, choices, and opportunities.
When Mistry visits them, she discovers that each woman has her own secrets, dreams, and plans—which, despite their declarations of domestic solidarity, they have not confided in each other. And when the resulting tension turns murderous, Parveen is drawn into the mystery, on account of her deep sense of justice and a need to advocate for women who, for a variety of reasons, can't (yet) advocate for themselves and their children.
The real mystery here is less the identity of the Malabar Hill murderer but how Parveen Mistry, female lawyer, came to be the person she is. Leaving off the action of 1921 at a startling cliffhanger, Massey investigates the other mystery by taking the reader back in time to the early 1910s, when a decidedly more naïve and self-conscious Parveen Mistry is deliberating whether to drop out of a Bombay law school due to the students' and professors' relentless bullying and obstruction. Her father seems disappointed, but a way out seems offered by a new life guide: the handsome, confident Cyrus Sodawalla, the young scion of a Parsi drink-bottling family, who wishes to marry her despite his family's insistence upon finding him a bride of their own choice. The novel shifts back and forth between this drama, told in the third person, and the older Parveen's narration of the murder case. As the answers pile up, the stories combine to make a passionate, significant, and utterly riveting statement about what might lead a woman to pursue her own and others' basic civil rights and independent goals. In the end, the widows of Malabar Hill owe a great deal to Parveen's advocacy in light of their similar life struggles, but they also vitally help her to make sense of her past and make a major decision for her future.
In the Parveen Mistry series, aims to uncover the "untold stories of Indians and Europeans" from the colonial period—and she succeeds in that aim. Today, India's Parsi community is endangered. According to a BBC News report of 2016, there are now about 61,0000 Parsi in India. In recent history, this population shrinks 12% per census decade, even though India's population increases by over 20% per decade. Let's hope that Parveen Mistry's adventures multiply and bring to a new generation of readers awareness not only of Parsi Indian history and culture, but consideration of the other intersecting significant issues that Massey and Mistry explore. I can't wait to follow Mistry on her next adventure.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, January 2018
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