A (somewhat different) Passage To India: The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

February 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is a novel that succeeds on several levels: as an examination of a particular culture at a specific moment; as the narrative of a complex mystery that unfolds in the context of that culture; and finally, as a look into the heart of a vibrant, intelligent, and vulnerable young woman.

In post World War One India, Perveen Mistry aspires to be an attorney. She has before  her the example of her father Jamshedji. He is a superb lawyer of upright character and unquestioned integrity; moreover, he is devoted to Perveen and fiercely protective of her. He  would like nothing more than for her to join him in his legal practice. But they both must figuratively walk through fire before realizing this goal.

I knew almost nothing about India during this period, so reading this novel was a learning experience for me. I didn’t realize what a rich mixture of ethnic origins and creeds the country was at that time. (Perveen and her family are part of the Parsi minority dwelling in Bombay at that time.) It should be emphasized, though, that Massey wears her erudition lightly. There’s no dry academic tone here; rather,  aspects of the different cultures are presented in service to the narrative and to the characters and their often turbulent lives.

Perveen Mistry is a wonderful creation. For me as a reader, she came along at just the right moment. I was beginning to tire of the trope in which the Plucky and Resourceful Female takes on big challenges and, by means of unwavering determination and perseverance, surmounts them (with little, if any, material assistance from nearby males.) Perveen does waver; she’s not absolutely sure of herself at every turn, and she readily acknowledges her mistakes. Ultimately, she prevails, both personally and professionally, through a combination of her own native courage and the unwavering support of friends and family.

Sujata Massey appends the following information in her Acknowledgments pages:

Perveen Mistry was inspired by India’s earliest women lawyers: Cornelia Sorabji of Poona, the first woman to read law at Oxford and the first woman to sit the British law  exam in 1892, and Mithan Tata Lam of Bombay, who also read law at Oxford and was the first woman admitted to  the Bombay Bar in 1923.

Some readers might feel that there is too much time spent on Perveen’s personal life and not enough on the actual mystery. For this reader, the former was substantially more compelling than the latter. When the novel begins, a complex legal situation has already presented itself and is made yet more complicated by  murder. The cast of characters is large and diverse. Add to all of this, it’s difficult to care about the victim. But from the outset, I was so enthralled by Perveen herself that I was glad to remain on board for the privilege of being in her company.

One other caveat about The Widows of Malabar Hill: it jumps back and forth in time. This can be disconcerting. It is almost always my preference that a fictional narrative adhere to a strict chronology. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, it should be good enough for other novelists as well. (Not that I have definite opinions on this subject!)

That said, I consider these reservations to be minor. I still loved this book and recommend it highly.

******************
I confess that when I learned the name of this protagonist, and that of Mistry Law, the firm headed by her father, I was reminded of the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I read this novel shortly after it came out in 1996. It is without doubt one of the most moving and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered.

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