The Widows of Malabar Hill

The Widows of Malabar Hill

by Sujata Massey

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616957797
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/09/2018
Series: A Perveen Mistry Novel , #1
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 15,876
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany, was raised mostly 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. Her novels have won the Agatha and Macavity awards and been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark prizes. Visit her website at sujatamassey.com.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
A STRANGER’S GAZE
Bombay, February 1921
 
On the morning Perveen saw the stranger, they’d almost collided. Perveen had come upon him half-hidden in the portico entrance to Mistry House. The unshaven, middle-aged man appeared as if he’d slept for several days and nights in his broadcloth shirt and the grimy cotton dhoti that hung in a thousand creases from his waist to his ankles. His small, squinting eyes were tired, and he exuded a rank odor of sweat mixed with betel nut.
     A visitor to Mistry Law this early was rare. The firm was located in Fort, Bombay’s first settlement. Although the old wall had been taken down, the district was still a fortress of law and banking, with most openings between nine and ten.
     Assuming the man was a sad-sack client, Perveen glanced down, not wanting him to feel overly scrutinized. The idea of a woman solicitor was a shock to many. But when Perveen glanced down, she was disconcerted to see the man wasn’t poor at all. His thin legs were covered by black stockings, and his feet were laced into scuffed black leather brogues.
     The only place men wore British shoes and stockings with their dhotis was Calcutta, about twelve hundred miles away. Calcutta: the city that would always remind her of Cyrus.
     As Perveen looked up, her alarm must have revealed itself. The man scuffled backward.
     “Just a minute! Are you seeking Mistry Law?” she called as he rushed across the street.
 
 
Feeling perplexed, Perveen rapped on the door, which was opened moments later by Mustafa, the longtime butler in charge of Mistry House. The elderly man touched his heart and forehead in greeting before taking the tiffin box she’d brought with the day’s lunch. “Adab, Perveen-memsahib,” he said. “And where is your honorable father this morning?”
     “He’s got Jayanth’s trial at the High Court. Mustafa, did you know someone was waiting in our doorway?”
     He looked past her into the now-empty portico. “No. Where has he gone?”
     “Across the street—he’s the man wearing the dhoti.” Perveen saw that the man was now standing in the shadow of a building.
     Mustafa squinted. “Although dirty, he isn’t a beggar. Not with shoes.”
     “Shoes and stockings,” Perveen pointed out.
     “Had he knocked, I would have told him to come after ten. You are too busy first thing in the morning for such strangers—although I saw no appointments in the book today?”
     Perveen noted the worry in his voice. Mustafa knew that it was a struggle for her to attract clients. “I didn’t book any appointments today because an old friend is sailing in from England. I’ll meet her when she arrives.”
     “SS London?”
     Perveen smiled. “You must have checked today’s paper for the listing.”
     The grizzled old man tilted his head downward, accepting the praise. “Yes, indeed. I’ll inform you when the London is unloading. And tell me, will your English friend come to Mistry House? I could prepare a small tea.”
     “I think Alice will go to her parents’ home in Malabar Hill first—but perhaps she’ll visit soon.” Perveen surveyed the marble foyer, which was softly lit by lamps in gilded sconces. She would relish showing the Bombay Gothic building to her friend, Alice Hobson-Jones. The twenty-foot ceilings were a design feature of which Abbas Kayam Mistry, her late grandfather, had been especially proud. It always seemed as if her grandfather were watching from the long portrait guarding the entryway. His eyes, as inky black as his flat-topped fetah, were all knowing but not warm.
     “I’ve got a load of papers to work through upstairs. I hope Pappa’s back for lunch because I’ve brought a very good one today.”
     “He must win at court, Insha’Allah,” Mustafa said piously, “or he won’t have an appetite.”
     “He loses very rarely!” Perveen said, although that morning’s case would be a hard one. Both she and Jamshedji had been quiet in the car coming in: he looking over his notes, she gazing out the window, thinking of their young client in jail a few miles away, wondering if this would be the day he was freed.
     “Your father wins with his God-given ability to know the thoughts behind people’s faces,” Mustafa told her. “Mistry-sahib can read the judge’s face like a newspaper.”
     Perveen sighed, wishing she had the same talent. She had no idea if the stranger was a lost soul or harbinger of serious trouble.
     Putting the awkward incident aside, she trudged upstairs to address a half-done property contract on her side of the big mahogany partners’ desk. Legal paperwork was sometimes numbing, but the subtlety of one word could mean the difference between a client’s success and his ruin. Three years of reading law had built her understanding, but a half year working under her father had taught her to inspect each line backward and forward.
     As the morning grew sunnier, she switched on the small electric fan that sat in a central window. Mistry House had been the first building on the block to pay for electric service, and due to its high cost, she was supposed to use it sparingly.
     Perveen glanced out the window and down to the street. Fort’s twenty square miles were once the East India Company’s original fortified settlement. Now the district was known for the High Court and the many law offices around it. Nestled alongside the British and Hindu and Muslim law offices were a significant number owned by members of her own religious community, the Indian-born Zoroastrians. Although Parsis accounted for just 6 percent of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they constituted one-third of its lawyers.
     Iranis—the Zoroastrian immigrants who had come from the nineteenth century onward—prided themselves on running superlative bakeries and cafés serving cuisine influenced by their ancient homeland of Persia. Such was Yazdani’s, the bakery-café across the street. The shop drew more than two hundred customers every day. This morning, the customers going in and out were working their way around a solitary obstacle.
     It was the Bengali stranger. He’d left the place where she’d seen him earlier and set himself up in the shadow of the restaurant’s awning. This allowed him to face Mistry House without roasting in the sun.
     Perveen felt a surge of apprehension and then reminded herself that she couldn’t be seen inside the second floor of Mistry House. From her perch, she had a bird’s-eye view.
     In a corner of the office, a tall Godrej cabinet was Perveen’s alone. It held umbrellas, extra clothing, and the Bombay Samachar article touting her as Bombay’s first woman solicitor. She’d wanted to frame the news story and hang it on the downstairs wall along with Jamshedji Mistry’s many accolades. Her father had thought it too much to throw in the faces of clients who needed a gentle introduction to the prospect of female representation.
     Perveen rummaged in the cabinet until she found her mother-of-pearl opera glasses. Back at the window, she adjusted the focus until the man’s sinister face appeared close up. He did not look like anyone she’d ever seen in Fort; nor could she remember seeing him in Calcutta.
     Perveen laid down the opera glasses and turned to unopened letters from the previous day. A thick envelope engraved with a return address 22 Sea View Road topped the stack. An existing client was a priority. This client, Mr. Omar Farid, was a textile-mill owner who had succumbed to stomach cancer two months previously.
     Perveen read the letter from the appointed estate trustee, Faisal Mukri. Mr. Mukri wanted her to make a change that would disrupt the estate settlement on which she’d been working. Mr. Farid had three widows, all of whom still lived together in his house, and a total of four children—a humble number of offspring for a polygynist, according to Jamshedji.
     Mr. Mukri had written 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 infusion of money might be cause for scrutiny. Perveen decided to speak with her father before responding to Mr. Mukri.
     Perveen placed the offending letter on Jamshedji’s side of the desk as Mustafa came in with a small silver tray holding a cup of tea with two Britannia biscuits perched jauntily on the saucer. After a tiny sip of the hot, milky brew, she asked Mustafa, “Have you been out to the street?”
     “I haven’t. Why?”
     She couldn’t express her deep-seated worry, so she only said, “The man who was blocking the doorway has stationed himself across the street.”
     “Lurking on Bruce Street!” From Mustafa’s grim expression, she thought he looked ready to grab his old Punjabi regiment rifle that he kept in a kitchen cabinet. “Shall I toss him to the Esplanade?”
     “There’s probably no reason to. But if you want a look at him, try these.” Perveen went to the window, where she picked up the opera glasses. It took her a few minutes to show the elderly man how to adjust the lenses to his needs.
     “Ay, such magical spectacles! One can see all over with these!”
     “Aim toward Yazdani’s. Do you see him?”
     “The man in the white dhoti.” Mustafa sighed. “Now I’m remembering he was nearby when I went outside to buy milk.”
     “How early was that?”
     “Usual time—twenty, thirty minutes before your arrival.”
     This meant the man had been staking out their building for three hours straight.
     Legally, he had the right to stand where he wanted. But Bruce Street was Perveen’s second home, and she felt anxious to know for whom the out-of-towner was waiting. Trying to sound matter-of-fact, she said, “I’ll walk over and ask why he’s there.”
     Mustafa put down the glasses and looked at her with alarm. “You are a young lady alone. I should be the one to send that badmash packing.”
     Perveen regretted pulling Mustafa into her worries. “Please stay. There are so many people around that nothing could happen.”
     Still grumbling about danger to young ladies, Mustafa followed her downstairs. He opened the heavy door with great ceremony. Scowling dramatically, he remained on the marble step after she went out.
     A bullock cart rolled past, and Perveen took advantage of its cover to cross the street unnoticed. As she came up in front of the Bengali, he acknowledged her arrival with a sharp upward movement of his face. Then he pivoted away, as if meaning to hide himself.
     “Good day to you, sahib. Do you work nearby?” Perveen asked politely in Hindi.
     “Nah-ah-ah!” his answer came in the form of a raspy cough.
     “Sahib, are you waiting for someone on Bruce Street?”
     “Nah!” He responded fast this time and glared at her with his bloodshot eyes.
     Striving to keep her voice steady, she spoke again: “Do you know Cyrus Sodawalla?”
     His mouth opened, revealing crooked, paan-stained teeth. He stood still for a moment—and then he ran.
     Perveen stared after him in dismay. She’d hoped he’d say no. She had anticipated a flat denial, not a departure.
     “Huzzah!” Mustafa was waving his arms side to side, as if she’d bowled a perfect cricket score.
     Perveen felt too shaken to return to Mustafa. She waved back at him and decided to venture inside Yazdani’s.
     Lily Yazdani was working behind the counter. The fourteen-year-old’s long hair was tied up with a traditional mathabana cloth, and she wore a snowy apron over a pretty yellow sari. She beamed at the appearance of Perveen.
     “Kem cho, Perveen!” Lily called out a greeting in Gujarati.
     “Good morning to you, Lily! And why aren’t you in school?”
     “A water pipe burst yesterday, so it’s closed.” Lily drew the corners of her lips down in an exaggerated frown. “I’m missing two tests.”
     Perveen winced. “I hope Mistry Construction isn’t at fault. I believe the company built your school.”
     “Who cares about the pipe? I’d rather be here baking cakes with my pappa.”
     Perveen was sorry to hear this. She had a nagging anxiety that Lily would leave high school too early.
     Firoze Yazdani emerged from the kitchen, his round face damp from heat. Wiping floury hands on his apron, he said, “What is your pleasure today, my dear Perveen? The dahitan were fried an hour ago and are soaking in sweet rose syrup. And of course, there are the cashew and almond fudges, and the pudding and custard cups.”
     Because of her inward agitation, Perveen didn’t think she could force anything sweet down her throat without gagging. At the same time, she couldn’t walk away without a purchase. “I’m welcoming an old friend from England at Ballard Pier later on today, so I’d like you to pack me a small box of your prettiest dahitan.”
     “Most beautiful and sweet. Just like you!” Firoze’s wide grin split his face like a cracked persimmon.
     “By the way—did you serve a fellow from outside Bombay this morning?”
     Firoze looked puzzled, but Lily spoke up. “We had a dark and grumpy customer with a funny accent. He bought a date-nut cake and some almond fudge. I told him he could sit at a table, but he went outside.”
     “He stayed outside for a few hours,” Perveen said. “I asked him something, and he ran away as if I were a nasty British policeman!”
     “Probably he arrived on the overnight train because he seemed quite tired,” Lily reflected. “He asked in the funniest accent what time law offices opened up in this area. I said nine o’clock for most firms and half nine if it’s the Mistrys.”
     “What are you doing giving out such information about our esteemed neighbors?” Firoze wagged a reproving finger at his daughter.
     Firoze knew things about Perveen that he’d blessedly never disclosed. She could have said the name Cyrus to him, and his eyes would have flared with recognition. But she would not parade her past mistakes in front of his impressionable daughter. “That accent is a Bengali one. Now that Lily’s described him, do you recall him?” she asked him.
     The baker shook his head. “My cardamom dough needed attention, so I was in back. It’s good that you told off that velgard!”
     “A wise woman can catch trouble before it starts,” Lily said as she tied a fine bow around the box of sweets. “Pappa, would you let me run your business later on, just as Mistry-sahib is doing with Perveen?”
     “My father has hardly done that! He’ll work for many more years, and I still must prove my worth.” Perveen spoke sincerely; it was a heavy responsibility to be the only woman solicitor in Bombay. She couldn’t bring shame on Jamshedji Mistry. This was why the stranger’s presence bothered her

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The Widows of Malabar Hill 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A sympathetic intelligent heroine and believable situations, set in a fascinating and unfamiliar culture. It held my interest to the last page. I hope this is the first of a series.
Anonymous 7 days ago
This was thoroughly enjoyable. I loved Perveen Mistry as the first female solicitor in Bombay and her adventures both personal and professional. The author thoroughly researched Bombay cultures, including Parsi and Muslim, especially related to restrictions on women. It made for a fascinating book. I hope there will be a second about Perveen.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have enjoyed learning more about India in general, Bombay specifically. What an awesome mix of religions and cultures
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So very glad to have discovered this book and author! Expertly written, the story flows comfortably between the heroine's two important periods in her life and career. I was enthralled with the history, food, customs, past tragedies, and future hopefullness of India. Looking forward to reading more from this author.
LesBahadur More than 1 year ago
A time, an era, a multi-cultural society, a mystery -- all woven into a most delightful read.
dibbylodd More than 1 year ago
A clear voice and vision of the time and place. Many bothersome events regarding women and their rights. but it's totally within the historic time-frame. The main character's backstory unfolds gradually in flashbacks. For such an intelligent person, she allowed her "heart" to override her brain to her detriment. Her father's action in court on her behalf is utterly brilliant! Not a light read, for sure! But quite fascinating.
dibbylodd More than 1 year ago
A clear voice and vision of the time and place. Many bothersome events regarding women and their rights. but it's totally within the historic time-frame. The main character's backstory unfolds gradually in flashbacks. For such an intelligent person, she allowed her "heart" to override her brain to her detriment. Her father's action in court on her behalf is utterly brilliant! Not a light read, for sure! But quite fascinating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
KOMET More than 1 year ago
A few days ago, I had the satisfaction of reading "THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL." It's centered around India's first woman lawyer, Perveen Mistry, who had received her legal training at Oxford. The time is February 1921 and she has returned to her home in Bombay, where she has a job working in her father's law firm. Perveen has been given the responsibility of executing the will of Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim who owned a fabric mill and had 3 wives. In the immediate aftermath of Farid's death, the 3 widows are living in strict purdah (a type of seclusion in which the widows never leave the women's quarters nor see and speak with any man outside of the residence) at the Farid residence on Malabar Hill. Whilst carefully reading the documents, Perveen notices that the widows have signed off their inheritance to a charity. What strikes Perveen as odd is that one of the widows' signature is a 'X', which is a clear indication that the widow who affixed the 'X' probably was unable to read the document. This leads Perveen to wonder how the 3 widows will be able to live and take care of themselves. She begins to suspect that maybe they may be taken advantage of by the legal guardian entrusted by Mr. Farid to handle their financial affairs. Perveen has the welfare and best interests of her clients, the 3 widows, in mind. Perveen goes on to carry out an investigation. She makes an arrangement with the widows' legal guardian, Feisal Mukri, to come to the residence to visit the widows and to speak with each of them separately. In the process of doing so, tensions are stirred in the Farid residence and a murder takes place there that makes a straightforward matter of executing a family will into something much more perilous and uncertain. There is also something out of Perveen's recent past in Calcutta that intrudes into her present life. "THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL" is a novel whose prose resonates on every page. It has a lot of twists and turns that will engage the reader's attention throughout. Sujata Massey is a writer who not only knows how to craft and tell a richly compelling novel. She'll leave the reader wanting more. And after almost 14 years of reading Massey's work, I'm already eager to begin reading the second novel in the Perveen Mistry Series.
nhr3bookcrazyNR More than 1 year ago
Very different setting of Bombay, India in the 1920s - and the first female lawyer. I learned a lot while enjoying the story. This is the first in a new series - and I will definitely be on the lookout for more books in this series. It was also the first time I've read anything by this author, so I'll gladly be reading earlier books she's written - while awaiting the next book featuring Perveen Mistry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm excited about this new series by one of my favorite authors! I first became a fan of Sujata Massey through her Rei Shimura detective novels about a Japanese-American antiques dealer turned detective. Rei Shimura was spunky, independent, and curious about the world, and she's my all-time favorite detective. Now Sujata Massey has branched out into writing about India, and I love these books even more! In 2013 she published The Sleeping Dictionary, a historical novel about a poor Indian girl without a family, leaving her few options for survival. It was one of my favorite books in 2013. Next up is The Widows of Malabar Hill, the first in her Perveen Mistry series. An Oxford-educated, multilingual Parsi woman in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1921, Perveen is one of the first female lawyers in India, partially inspired by the real life of Cornelia Sorabji. Perveen has modern parents who encourage her education and career, but they do still want her to get married. The novel covers the travails of her personal life as well as her professional work. She helps her dad with a case of a rich Muslim mill owner who has died and left three widows behind. The women are in full purdah (exclusion from men), so Perveen is best suited to speak to them. She soon becomes concerned because their husband's agent plans to give away their inheritance and leave them with nothing. When she begins to investigate the situation, a murder occurs and things escalate. I am excited about reading more of this series. Massey does an exquisite job exposing the reader to many facets of Indian culture and religion--in this case Islam and Parsis, who are descended from Persian Zoroastrians. Check out Massey's excellent website to read the first chapter, peruse recipes from the book, see photos from real places in the book, and read her Q&A. Excellent historical fiction + setting in Asia + a spunky heroine + mystery and adventure = the perfect combination for me! Bring on the next one!