It is 1921 in Bombay, India, and three widows who live in purdah — secluded in women’s quarters where men cannot see them — have signed away their inheritances to a charity. Perveen Mistry, the city’s only woman lawyer, has just joined her father’s thriving law firm and is tasked with executing the will of the women’s wealthy Muslim husband. Perveen’s suspicions are raised when she meets the man who is supposed to be the defenseless women’s guardian but seems to be mostly interested in their money.
Review by Mary Ann Grossmann | Pioneer Press
So begins “The Widows of Malabar Hill,” first in a series by Sujata Massey in which history and culture blend in an involving and fast-paced mystery. Massey, who grew up in St. Paul’s University Grove neighborhood, already has fans for her 11 award-winning mysteries featuring Japanese-American antiques dealer Rei Shimura.
In a conversation from her home in Baltimore, Massey said that “Perveen is partly based on Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to read law at Oxford and the first woman to sit the British law examine in 1892, and Mithan Tata Lam, who also read law at Oxford and was the first woman admitted to the Bombay Bar in 1923.”
“The Widows of Malabar Hill” was a hit even before its Jan. 9 publication date. It earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Library Journal and was the American Booksellers Association’s IndieNext selection for January.
Perveen is a fascinating character — smart, resourceful, ready to take on prejudices against women in the law. She is a member of the Parsi community, followers of the Zoroastrian faith who migrated from what was then Persia, so the story is filled with the food and customs of that tight-knit community. And as a former abused wife, Perveen wants to help women who had few rights in those years of the Raj, when Britain ruled India. She also has a privileged position because her family is wealthy and respected and she’s the best friend of Alice, the governor’s gay daughter.
Massey says that by the time she completed her last Rei Simura adventure, which she self-published in 2014, she was ready for a change from telling contemporary stories set in Tokyo. So it was natural she would be inspired by the vibrancy and diverse cultures in 1920s India, homeland of her father, Subir K. Banerjee, professor emeritus in geophysics at the University of Minnesota. Her mother, Karin, is from Germany.
Massey’s first foray into historical fiction set in India was “The Sleeping Dictionary,” which she wrote when she was living in Minneapolis’ Lake of the Isles neighborhood from 2006 to 2012, when her psychiatrist husband, Anthony Massey, was medical director at Cigna Behavioral Health Inc. in Eden Prairie.
“I loved writing that book,” Massey said of “The Sleeping Dictionary,” the story of a peasant girl’s journey toward personal and political independence in the 1930s and ’40s. “I adored that world of early 20th century India. I felt like I wanted to continue there. I also wanted to get back to mystery and with this new series I can do both.”
Perveen first came to life in a novella, “Outnumbered at Oxford,” one of four pieces of historical fiction in “India Gray” (2015). The story, a sort-of prequel to “The Widows of Malabar Hill,” is about Perveen and Alice trying to locate an Indian servant who may have stolen an invaluable mathematics proof at St. Hilda’s College at Oxford, where they were students.
“I was just starting work on ‘The Widows of Malabar Hill’ and I wanted to know my character a little better,” Masey said about writing the novella. “It helped me dive into the novel knowing where Perveen was psychologically. Things that were touched on in the novella — that Alice and Perveen are really good friends, their ability to solve a mystery because they’ve done it, some complications with their romantic lives — were touched on slightly in the novella and the truth comes out in the novel.”
Massey doesn’t shy away from depicting some of cruel treatment women were subjected to in those days. After Perveen marries, she finds to her horror that women in her husband’s traditional family must stay in a locked, bare room during their periods, without seeing anyone, washing themselves or access to a bathroom.
“This was an orthodox custom and I highly doubt anyone is doing it today,” Massey said, adding that purdah has similarly gone away, except for some very old women who have never known any other way of life.
The novel also makes clear that Perveen’s mostly forward-looking community was benevolent in funding hospitals and women’s education.
COMING TO AMERICA
Massey, 53, was born in Sussex, England, and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 5. After graduating from the old Alexander Ramsey High School in Roseville, she earned a degree from the creative-writing program of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and got a job as a reporter on the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper. After she married Tony Massey, the couple moved to Japan so he could fulfill his military obligation. That’s where Sujata absorbed Japanese culture that permeates her Shimura mysteries, some of which she wrote when her kids — 19-year-old daughter Pia and 16-year-old son Neel — were in grade school.
Now that the kids are grown, Massey travels to India about once a year, spending two or three weeks in Bombay (now Mumbai) to soak up atmosphere and get ideas for future books.
“When I’m in Bombay, I stay in a very old section, called Fort, where this story takes place,” she explained. “The Royal Bombay Yacht Club is a wonderful old social club built during the British years, a beautiful late-Victorian building. Lots of places in the book are in walking distance of the club so it’s a neat way to do research.”
During her February trip to India, Massey will also do book signings since “The Widows of Malabar Hill” is being published there in English.
Her research brings her back to Minnesota often to work at the University of Minnesota’s Ames Library of South Asia and to consult with Mitra Sharafi of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a legal historian and associate professor at the law school who specializes in the role of Parsis in India’s legal history.
While she’s here she can visit her parents, both of whom remarried after they divorced. Her father lives near Highland Park and her mother is in the big house where Massey grew up.
Another local angle is that the finely-dawn maps at the front of the novel were done by Philip Schwartzberg, owner of Minneapolis-based Meridian Mapping.
“Philip owned an antique map of Bombay from a rare book his father has,” Massey says of Schwartzberg. “Most of the places on Philip’s map in the book are real. Anyone who’s carrying it can walk around and go to these places.”
NEXT ADVENTURES IN BOMBAY
Massey’s already working on the third mystery in this series and she’s excited about the possibilities for future books. The Ames Library has a database of old articles from Indian newspapers where she learned of an unsolved case that might have to do with murder at a palace of two Parsi girls in the 1800s. And there’s inspiration from the life of lawyer Mithan Tata Lam, a key figure in expanding people’s freedom to divorce in 1936.
“Before the change in laws, the only way women could get a divorce was if the physical violence was so extreme, like losing an eye or limb,” she says. “It didn’t mean a knocked-out tooth or broken bone or rape. The new law allowed people to divorce just because they didn’t get along.”
Besides her enjoyment in writing the new series, Massey is happy that promoting these books will allow her to continue her relationships with mystery bookstores and readers.
“That kind of network of stores with devoted followers who come again and again and read whole series. You don’t get that with literary fiction,” she says. “It’s a sweet spot for a writer.”
WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING
“An outstanding series launch. … The period detail and thoughtful characterizations, especially of the capable, fiercely independent lead, bode well for future installments.” — Publishers Weekly
“(Massey) gives enough cultural details without overwhelming readers with facts. The two plotlines wonderfully depict the development of the main character and the mystery as it unfolds. …Fresh and original.” — Library Journal
“In addition to getting an unusual perspective on women’s rights and relationships … each of the many characters is uniquely described, flaws and all, which is the key to understanding their surprising roles in the well-constructed puzzle. — Booklist