(28. - 1167.) - The Mistress of Bhatia House by Sujata Massey - In 1922 Perveen Mistry’s sister-in-law, Gulnaz, has just given birth to a daughter, Klushy. Gulnaz is disappointed it was not a boy. Having abrupt mood swings, she is curt and nasty towards Perveen.
On behalf of Gulnaz, Perveen attends a fundraiser for a women’s hospital to be built in Bombay. Sir Ddwarkanath Bhatia is the lead sponsor. He is a wealthy man through his stone business for building construction. His wife, Premlata, died several years earlier. Uma Bhatia, the wife of his older son, Parvesh, hosts the gathering. Being Parvesh’s spouse, Uma is the senior daughter-in-law in the house.
Women from the elite of several backgrounds are present and making contributions. Adding to the mix of Indian ethnic groups that have appeared in the series is Dr. Miriam Penkar who is a member of the Bene Israel Jews.
A servant, Sunanda Chavda, rushes to save Ishar, the son of Uma and Parvesh. He has caught on fire. She is significantly burned.
Sir Ddwarkanath removes his support for the hospital considering the project too much work for Uma and that her attention should be focused on her children.
Subsequently, Sunanda, is charged with taking an “oral abortifacient” to cause her to abort. She stoutly asserts she was not pregnant. The allegation comes from Mr. Arvind Vikas Tomar, a “Hindu gentleman”, who claims to have overheard conversations between Sunanda and another servant, Oshadi.
In a remarkable scene in Court, Perveen is denied the opportunity to speak to bail for Sunanda. My next post will discuss the event.
Plausibly, but dangerously for objectivity, Perveen invites the desperate Sunanda to stay with her family.
The story delves into difficult issues related to women, especially very young women, whose health suffers by having too many children. There are teas that could help with menstrual problems and teas that could produce miscarriages.
Perveen searches for evidence to support Sunanda. She is turned away by Uma.
Who will represent Sunanda at trial? Perveen cannot appear. A prominent barrister, Vivek Sharma, normally eager for referrals from Mistry law asserts he is too busy. Her father, Jamshedji, wants to concentrate on his own cases.
Since lawyers started representing clients in court the justice you get is often dependent on the justice you can afford. Sunanda would be virtually defenceless if Perveen was not her advocate. While Perveen would prefer someone pay for Sunanda’s defence she is prepared to provide the services of Mistry Law pro bono.
Perveen diligently searches law journals for cases on charges of abortion. She seeks cases where the alleged abortifacient was tea.
Miss Cora Arbison, actually the youngest wife at 19 of Mansour, the Nawab of Varanpur, wants to retain Perveen to represent her. When not seeking anonymity she is addressed as Begum (a word denoting a Muslim woman of high social status).
Sleep is a struggle at the Mistry home. Klushy is unsettled. She cries much of the night. Whether to intervene (Indian custom) or let her cry (English custom) causes friction.
For the first time I read the word “lawyeress” to describe Perveen.
Tomar is a mysterious complainant as no one knows him at the Bhatia residence.
Perveen’s relationship with Colin Sandringham has become physical though it remains secret. How long can they conceal their passion?
Every day Perveen must carefully balance her duties to clients, her obligations within the family, her social roles and her commitment to improve the lives of Indian women. Her status as a solicitor remains constrained by restrictions on women practising law and society’s reluctance to accept women lawyers.
Within her office Perveen experiences frequent frustration with male clients who either insist on seeing her father instead of her or want her father to provide a second opinion on her advice.
It is a good book. Massey is an excellent storyteller. The plot is set firmly within India of 1922. I wish more of the plot had revolved around legal matters.
Perveen has come to remind me of Maisie Dobbs. Each woman is successful in the male dominated world of the 1920’s. Each is a spirited woman of integrity.