Jazz Age Bombay and murder most foul in purdah (Book Review)

A Murder on Malabar HillBy Vikas Datta,

Title: A Murder on Malabar Hill; Author: Sujata Massey; Publisher: Penguin Random House India; Pages: 440; Price: Rs 399

India is modernising in the 1920s, but at its own pace. Even in Bombay, which, as one of the British Empire’s greatest ports, is open to outside influences, change is slow. Some professions are still not fully open to women, and there are situations where the law must tread carefully — especially in the brutal murder in a house full of “purdahnasheen” Muslim women.

But there is someone who can operate in such a tricky situation — due to her profession and her background. And while for feisty Parsi lawyer Perveen Mistry, Sujata Massey draws from Indian legal history, she matches it with her thorough research and a compelling plot to create a mesmerising mystery set in Raj-era Bombay, against contemporary Japan and colonial Bengal that have served in her other books.

It is February 1921, and Perveen, the city’s first woman solicitor, has been raring to show her skills after six months in her father’s law firm — the only one that will employ her. Since she cannot yet practice in court, she handles the legal paperwork for the firm – – wills, contracts and so on.

Among them is a recently-deceased Muslim businessman’s will pending for execution, but now the estate’s trustee sends a letter from his three widows, who want to donate their “mehr” (wife’s settlement agreed at the wedding time) to the family “wakf”. An intrigued and concerned — we learn why later — Perveen wonders if the women, in their cloistered existence, fully understand the consequences of their decision and obtains permission to go and ask them.

When she goes to their secluded Malabar Hill mansion, her concerns are not assuaged, rather they are exacerbated. Not only do the three wives have some secrets from each other, they also seem unaware what the estate trustee has in mind. This man also turns out to be an unpleasant character who is dominating the household with threats — express or implied.

While Perveen tries to counsel the women against leaving themselves vulnerable by signing away their wealth, she is overheard by the trustee, who turns on her and she has to leave to avoid an unpleasant and even untoward scene. However, she forgets her briefcase and when she returns to pick it as it contains some important documents, she finds him stabbed to death.

Perveen is determined to aid the women by helping catch the murderer. But even with her connections — her recently-arrived Oxford college-mate happens to be the daughter of a senior aide to the Governor — there is only so much that a woman in India then can do on her own or convince the authorities to do.

But as our heroine tries, there is danger for her personally. Will she be able to survive to unravel the mystery?

Meanwhile, a parallel story, occasioned by the sight of a strange gentleman who appears to be Bengali by his garb, and evokes in her memories of Calcutta — a city of happiness, humiliation and heartbreak — gives her background and her stress on women’s rights.

While the mystery set nearly a century back in a time with a different pace of life and governance — the colonial rulers more keen to maintain order and avoid antagonising any touchy community – – is captivating, it is the skilful evocation of an era of political and social churning that sets this far above a mere “whodunnit”, no matter how exotic in time and space.

The freedom struggle is yet to pick up pace among professional classes, but Massey intertwines it subtly into her narrative with episodes like Perveen’s telling-off of some neighbourhood activists, her father’s legal defence of a “subversive” client and an Indian policeman in a crucial role. The social aspect is more marked — though some points may surprise those who think her community largely Westernised.

Along with the range of memorably drawn characters — ranging from the widows to the policemen, British and Indian — it is an engaging read with enough matters left unresolved to create interest and anticipation for the next installment. For Massey promises it will be a series.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)



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