(39. – 1,010) The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey - One of the most fascinating works of legal fiction I have read.
I was instantly intrigued by the lead lawyer. In 1921 Perveen Mistry is the first female solicitor in Bombay. Working in the family firm her father is going to court and she is handling contracts. Clients and the legal administration are not quite ready to have a woman represent them in court.
The Mistry’s are Parsi. Of Persian origins they are Zoroastrians. Though “Parsis accounted for just 6 percent of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they constituted one-third of its lawyers”.
And then the case. Perveen is suspicious about a letter she has received from Faisal Mukri, who is the estate trustee and household agent for the estate of Omar Farid. He had three wives at his death. I had not anticipated the widows of the title would have shared a husband.
The letter states “that all the widows wanted to give up their assets as donations to the family’s wakf, a charitable trust that provided funds each year to the needy while paying a dividend to specified relatives. While a man or woman certainly could donate wherever he or she desired, wakfs were assiduously monitored by the government in order to prevent fraud, and a sudden infusio of money might be cause for scrutiny.”
Why would they want to give up their assets?
Perveen’s father cannot discuss the letter with the Moslem widows as they will not meet with a man who is not their husband or a close family relative but it is possible for Perveen to talk directly with them.
Meeting with the widows provides insight into the challenges of three wives sharing a home. Beyond internal rivalries they had lived in purdah spending virtually all their time within the house. Now they have an even more cloistered life with their husband gone.
And then Mukri is murdered within the house. The widows and servants are the obvious suspects. From his treatment of everyone in the house to what he wanted to do with the estate motives abound for killing Mukri.
Farid died without a will. Rigid laws on inheritance create fear and friction.
As a lawyer I was caught up in the challenges presented in the book by differing laws for Indians of that time depending on their faith. Laws, such as divorce law, varies for Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Parsis and possibly other faiths. And then there is English law.
Women are at a disadvantage under all the legal systems.
Perveen is unusual, not only because she is a professional woman but because she is the friend of the daughter of a prominent English administrator. Perveen and Alice Hobson-Jones attended Oxford together. The friendship creates interesting dynamics as Alice’s father is overseeing the murder case.
The investigation is sensitive. While a killer must be found the British do not want to provoke unrest and possibly riots by Muslim Indians if they do not respect the privacy rights of the secluded women,
questioning them is a challenge. Will they close ranks against the police or will they turn upon one another?
Perveen is the only person with the standing from her sex, her professional status and social connections who can move between all the levels of personal, religious and business societies entertwined in the book.
Life is complicated for wealthy women in colonial India. Even for women not living in purdah they are bound by the traditions of the particular faith of their family and rarely associate with members of other faiths and only socialize within their own communities.
There is an architectural component to the solution that was subtle and vital to the resolution of the case and completely appropriate to the plot.
It is a good mystery with a plausible ending. Perveen finds the solution but it does not involve her legal skills. The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first in a series. I hope subsequent books more fully use the legal talents of Perveen.
With so many laws covering the same areas it would have been intriguing to be a lawyer in the Bombay of the 1920’s. I thought there must have been many conflicts over which law would prevail when the opposing parties were of different faiths. Which law has priority?
Perveen is such a great character my next post will be about her.