The Mistress of Bhatia House (Perveen Mistry Series #4)

The Mistress of Bhatia House (Perveen Mistry Series #4)

by Sujata Massey
The Mistress of Bhatia House (Perveen Mistry Series #4)

The Mistress of Bhatia House (Perveen Mistry Series #4)

by Sujata Massey

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Overview

Bombay’s only female solicitor, Perveen Mistry, grapples with class divisions, sexism, and complex family dynamics as she seeks justice for a mistreated young woman in this thrilling fourth installment in Sujata Massey’s award-winning series.

India, 1922: Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in Bombay, a city where child mortality is high, birth control is unavailable and very few women have ever seen a doctor.

Perveen is attending a lavish fundraiser for a new women’s hospital specializing in maternal health issues when she witnesses an accident. The grandson of an influential Gujarati businessman catches fire—but a servant, his young ayah, Sunanda, rushes to save him, selflessly putting herself in harm’s way. Later, Perveen learns that Sunanda, who’s still ailing from her burns, has been arrested on trumped-up charges made by a man who doesn’t seem to exist.

Perveen cannot stand by while Sunanda languishes in jail with no hope of justice. She takes Sunanda as a client, even inviting her to live at the Mistry home in Bombay’s Dadar Parsi colony. But the joint family household is already full of tension. Perveen’s father worries about their law firm taking so much personal responsibility for a client, and her brother and sister-in-law are struggling to cope with their new baby. Perveen herself is going through personal turmoil as she navigates a taboo relationship with a handsome former civil service officer.

When the hospital’s chief donor dies suddenly, Miriam Penkar, a Jewish-Indian obstetrician, and Sunanda become suspects. Perveen’s original case spirals into a complex investigation taking her into the Gujarati strongholds of Kalbadevi and Ghatkopar, and up the coast to Juhu Beach, where a decadent nawab lives with his Australian trophy wife. Then a second fire erupts, and Perveen realizes how much is at stake. Has someone powerful framed Sunanda to cover up another crime? Will Perveen be able to prove Sunanda’s innocence without endangering her own family?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641293297
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/11/2023
Series: Perveen Mistry Series , #4
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 189,232
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany, grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was a features reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun before becoming a full-time novelist. The first Perveen Mistry novel, The Widows of Malabar Hill, was an international bestseller and won the Agatha, Macavity, and Mary Higgins Clark Awards. Visit her website at sujatamassey.com.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue
Thursday, June 1, 1922


Sisters will fight.
     It’s true whether they are raised together or meet as sisters-in-law in a joint family household. Sisters fight for the better sari, for the chance to do the shopping, for the spot as the parents’ favorite. Such rivalry, followed by reconciliation, is as natural as the way summer’s punishing heat is chased off by monsoon.
     For Oshadi, it was easier to think about the weather. Even in pastoral Ghatkopar, ten miles north of Bombay, the air felt blisteringly humid. The rain was only a few weeks away—it was a shame the party couldn’t have waited for the first few days of monsoon, when drops danced lightly. Such a change in weather could have brought forward some harmony between Uma and Mangala Bhatia.
     As Oshadi slowly proceeded toward Bhatia House, she waved her walking stick at the wild dogs that congregated on the property across the street, waiting for the daily feeding that the rich Jain family provided. Oshadi wouldn’t let the dogs wander near Bhatia House; she had worked there longer than anyone and knew what it meant to protect.
     When Sir Dwarkanath’s wife had died ten years earlier, Uma, the senior daughter-in-law, had promoted Oshadi to housemistress over all six female servants at Bhatia House. For this, Oshadi was grateful; but it meant that Uma-bhabhu asked her to do many things that had nothing to do with ordinary service. Today she’d been sent out to walk to the shops in search of extra candles for the many lanterns set out around the courtyard. She’d gone to three shops before finding what was needed.
     As Oshadi limped up the gravel driveway, one of the skinny brown dogs edged close, a female with long teats and a whining voice. Again, she brandished her walking stick until the dog shied off, returning to the pack.
     Oshadi knew the durwan guarding Bhatia House was afraid of dogs; he ignored their occasional incursions onto the property. And tonight, he was busy polishing the booth and decorating it with hibiscus from the garden. All for Uma’s tea party; the guests were already streaming past him in horse-drawn taxis and a few private cars. She could hear the pleased gasps of some women at the sight of the wide, ochre-colored limestone bungalow edged with long verandas on both the upper and ground floors. A series of tiled gables and long-shuttered windows made the house appear even more impressive.
Some of the early arrivals, Gujarati women from nearby, were chattering as they walked behind her.
     “My husband wants to donate to the temple only,” one lady murmured to her companion. “Therefore, I’m giving a gold-bangle set.”
     “An excellent donation,” her friend opined. “I brought ten rupees.”
     “Your husband let you give that much?” The first woman’s voice lowered to a whisper.
     “Don’t be silly! I asked my mother.”
     As if impatient with Oshadi’s slow pace, the two women bustled past, giggling as they headed for the courtyard in their crackling tissue silk saris.
     On the ground floor veranda, Sir Dwarkanath Bhatia and Parvesh, his elder son, stood watching the arrivals.
     Oshadi paused at the servants’ door to catch some of the men’s conversation. Uma-bhabhu might need to hear about her father-in-law’s mood.
     “And what is all the furniture in the courtyard? So many mattresses, it looks like the guests have come to sleep!” Sir Dwarkanath thundered.
     “But over fifty ladies will be here. They must be made comfortable.” Parvesh’s voice was anxious.
     “You are saying the ladies need something soft for their bony kullas?” Lord Dwarkanath used the vulgar plural for hindquarters.
     Parvesh laughed nervously. “Bapuji, remember so many ladies are close by. They might hear you.”
     “All this tamasha for ladies’ work,” Sir Dwarkanath grumbled. “Only for your mother’s sake, I’m doing this.”
     “Yes. That is why Uma wants the hospital so much.” Parvesh was playing up to his father—just like everyone else.
     Oshadi quickly went inside, wanting to steal a few moments’ rest in the servants’ hall just outside the kitchen. The family had four cooks, all Brahmins. Due to Oshadi’s lower caste, she couldn’t enter the kitchen, but she made a sound so Aaker, one of the junior cooks, came out to see her.
     “The small candles for the cake. Pratip must use the others in the lanterns at dusk,” Oshadi said, remembering Uma’s instructions.
     Aaker winced. “Mangala-bhabhi says to light everything now. Too many people will be sitting at dusk; it will be more difficult.”
     Oshadi did not like the idea of lighting the flames earlier than necessary. They would add to the heat, and the longer they burned, the more chances for something to catch fire. “Did Uma-bhabhu agree?”
     “Don’t know.”
     Oshadi would soon find out. She asked Aaker to bring her a glass of water. Sinking down on the stool that everyone knew was hers, she drank her fill. Revived, she put the glass near the kitchen door and went out again.
     Enough women had arrived that she could not proceed straight into the courtyard but had to line up behind others. The woman ahead of her was an interesting sort: wearing an airy chiffon sari in pale yellow, yet carrying a bulky brown case that looked better suited to a man.
     “Good afternoon. Are you Mrs. Bhatia?” the strange lady asked Mangala-bhabhi, who was sitting behind a small table at the courtyard entrance.
     “I am. If your donation is cash, please count it in front of me.” Mangala-bhabhi’s voice was as stern as if she’d been talking to any of the family’s children.
     The visiting lady lifted the fold covering the opening of the briefcase—a man’s briefcase, Oshadi noted with fascination. Withdrawing an envelope, she laid it in front of Mangala-bhabhi.
     The woman rustled the bills. “Fifty-one rupees. It’s from Gulnaz. She wishes you her very best and was thankful for your recent visit to see her in hospital—”
     “I never went. You must be talking about my sister-in-law, Uma.” Mangala’s sallow face showed her displeasure at the confusion. “Please, go ahead inside the courtyard.”
     “I beg pardon for the mistake. May I ask your name? I’m Perveen. Perveen Mistry.”
     “I’m Mangala Bhatia. The hospital committee’s treasurer.”
     “Could you kindly point out Uma to me?” the guest persisted. “I don’t wish to keep making such a fool of myself! As long as it isn’t too much trouble.”
     Mangala shook her head. “I must stay taking donations. Go in, and you’ll see that Uma is the one wearing a pink sari.”
     As Perveen Mistry moved on, Mangala frowned at Oshadi. “And what are you doing in the middle of these fine people? Trying to make friends—or perhaps pick money from someone’s purse?”
     “Uma-bhabhu needs me.” Oshadi spoke simply, knowing no amount of bowing or scraping would please Mangala. The comment about stealing hurt—Mangala knew that Oshadi had served the family forty years and never taken as much as a match for her own use.
     “Very well. What Bhabhu says she needs, she must get.”
     But not always, Oshadi thought.
 

1
Tea and Generosity


Perveen felt that getting past Mangala Bhatia had been like running the proverbial gauntlet. No matter what she’d said, it seemed to peeve the woman. But she’d made it into a beautiful stone courtyard half-filled with ladies dressed in pastel-colored summer saris. Many were in shades of pink—quite pretty, but confusing as she started her search for Uma Bhatia.
     And soon it would be too late to catch the hostess, as everyone would be sitting down for the presentation. Thin mattresses had been spread across the ground for seating, and in front of them stood short-footed wooden trays. Each tray held a banana-leaf platter, a copper tumbler for water, and a shockingly simple clay teacup. Western-style porcelain, silver, and furniture were in high use amongst Bombay society, so Perveen found this departure an unexpected and very charming setup.
     Perveen scanned the courtyard. She’d never been in Ghatkopar before, and she guessed that many of the guests were local. The charitable hospital Uma Bhatia was founding would be built inside Bombay, so Perveen had expected to see some familiar faces. Yet the only woman she recognized was Lady Gwendolyn Hobson-Jones, the prickly mother of Perveen’s best friend, Alice.
     Lady Hobson-Jones turned from chatting with one friend to the next, and her cool blue gaze swept the crowd. Perveen smiled and began walking toward her, but Lady Hobson-Jones did not return the greeting. Instead, the doyenne of British Bombay took the arm of the full-figured brunette next to her and motioned for a third woman—this one a slender blonde in her thirties—to step closer. Now all three ladies’ backs were toward Perveen.
     Perveen stood still, wondering if Lady Hobson-Jones had snubbed her. Was this what the British called “cutting someone dead”?
     Perveen could never admit to being fond of Alice’s mother, but they had always chatted and smiled their way through encounters. Irritation rising, Perveen walked in the opposite direction, resolved that she would complete the mission of locating Uma Bhatia.
     Amid the numerous women wearing pinks that ranged from the palest blush to brilliant fuchsia, Perveen finally settled on someone who seemed likely to be the chair of the women’s hospital committee. She appeared to be in her midtwenties and wore an expensive-looking rose silk crepe floral sari. Hanging from her neck was a black-and-gold beaded wedding necklace with a floral pendant made up of many small diamonds.
     Striving to appear casual, Perveen approached the woman and her social group, who were gathered around a tall woman in a blue-and-white flowered silk sari. This lady, who had a striking, strong-boned face, wore her hair tightly coiled in a bun. Instead of carrying a cloth purse, she’d nestled a large leather bag under her left arm.
     “We must make our hospital welcoming to all,” the tall woman was saying in fluent Marathi, the language spoken by most people born and raised in Bombay and the surrounding countryside. “Even the hospital sentries could be women. Of course, we will have female nurses, but we need more women physicians. I’ll do my best to recruit, but I hope that you’ll encourage your daughters to enroll in medical college.”
     The woman in pink glanced at the others, then spoke in a decorous tone. “Dr. Penkar, we admire you for receiving your advanced and useful education. But medical college is too expensive for most of us.”
     Hearing the surname, Perveen realized the tall woman had to be Dr. Miriam Penkar, the city’s only Indian female obstetrician-gynecologist. It seemed quite a coup for the fledgling hospital to have her on board.
     “The girls can study in India!” The doctor gave her a wide smile. “We are fortunate that the Lady Hardinge Medical College has opened in Delhi. One of our committee members at this gathering, Mrs. Serena Prescott, was even involved in their fundraising. She can help your daughters.”
     Skeptical glances flickered between a few women, as if they didn’t believe that an Englishwoman would assist them—or that they could send a daughter as far away as Delhi.
     “It’s a grand idea. But first, let’s get the hospital built. By the time the roof goes on, lady doctors may be plentiful.” Uma spoke pleasantly, turning from the crowd to take notice of Perveen. Switching to English, she said, “Good afternoon! Are you a new supporter?” She looked Perveen over, clearly noting the legal briefcase, a cousin to Dr. Penkar’s medical kit.
     It was a relief to be invited into a group. Smiling warmly, Perveen answered, “My sister-in-law, Gulnaz Mistry, asked me to bring her best wishes. My name is Perveen Mistry.”
     “The solicitor?” blurted Dr. Penkar. “I’ve heard tales of you.”
     Perveen was pleased by the recognition. “Really? I believe we both were in Oxford—unfortunately, not at the same time.”
     “I had to sit my medical boards in Madras because Oxford wouldn’t give me a medical degree.” Dr. Penkar raised her eyebrows heavenward. “Therefore, the question sometimes comes to me, was my overseas education worthwhile? But I believe it’s served you—Gulnaz is always boasting about your brains and accomplishments. You must join the core committee and handle the legal contracts for us.”
     “Thank you very much, but I don’t know if I can join the committee at present,” Perveen said hastily. “Truly I am here to bring Gulnaz’s donation.”
     “Of course, we understand that your career makes you very busy,” Uma cut in. “But sit next to Dr. Penkar during the tea.”
     Perveen guessed the suggestion was meant to encourage her to reconsider. Normally, she would have ignored such a power play. But Miriam Penkar was intriguing, and she wanted to get to know her.
     A tall, thin servant lady had appeared at the outskirts of the group, standing with a slightly bent posture. Uma exited the circle and lowered her ear to the woman, who murmured to her in a stream of low, fast Gujarati.
     “It’s all right,” Uma said soothingly, and then turned to the ladies. “Oshadi reminded me that everyone should be settling in their places. Do spread the word to the other ladies, please. I will fetch the pandit to offer the blessing before we begin.”
     The women began moving toward the two rows of cushions facing the decorated platform in the center of the courtyard.

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