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The Widows of Malabar Hill (A Mystery of 1920s Bombay)
by Sujata Massey

Published: 2018-01-09
Hardcover : 400 pages
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1920s India: Perveen Mistry, Bombay's only female lawyer, is investigating a suspicious will on behalf of three Muslim widows living in full purdah when the case takes a turn toward the murderous. The author of the Agatha and Macavity Award–winning Rei Shimura novels brings us an ...
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1920s India: Perveen Mistry, Bombay's only female lawyer, is investigating a suspicious will on behalf of three Muslim widows living in full purdah when the case takes a turn toward the murderous. The author of the Agatha and Macavity Award–winning Rei Shimura novels brings us an atmospheric new historical mystery with a captivating heroine.

Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father's law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes women's legal rights especially important to her.

Mistry Law has been appointed to execute the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen examines the paperwork, she notices something strange: all three of the wives have signed over their full inheritance to a charity. What will they live on? Perveen is suspicious, especially since one of the widows has signed her form with an X—meaning she probably couldn't even read the document. The Farid widows live in full purdah—in strict seclusion, never leaving the women's quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate, and realizes her instincts were correct when tensions escalate to murder. Now it is her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that no innocent women or children are in further danger.

Inspired in part by the woman who made history as India's first female attorney, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay as well as the debut of a sharp new sleuth.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of January 2018: Set in 1920s Bombay, The Widows of a Malabar Hill introduces Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female solicitor, who works for her father’s law firm, handling contracts and estate work. When one of her father’s Muslim clients dies and the trustee of the estate submits paperwork, signed by his three widows, donating the bulk of their inheritance to charity, Perveen’s suspicions are aroused. The widows live in purdah, totally cut off from the outside world, and as she delves deeper into the secrets and betrayals in the house on Malabar Hill, what started as a routine inquiry quickly escalates to murder. Perveen has painful experience of the ways in which women’s voices can be silenced, and driven by personal tragedy to protect the rights of such women, even murder can’t deter her. Massey deftly evokes the sights, the sounds, and the heat of Bombay as her clever and determined heroine, aided by a large supporting cast of sharply-drawn characters, sidesteps both custom and danger to deliver justice. --Vannessa Cronin


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Discussion Questions

1. Perveen Mistry is in a historically groundbreaking role: she is representing the rights of female clients, some of whom have never before had any access to legal protection because of religious law, limited education, or patriarchal restrictions that greatly disadvantage them. Perveen is the perfect female lawyer to represent women’s rights, since she herself has had terrible legal problems and has seen how frustrating it is to have no power under the law. How much moredifficultiPerveen’sjobthan a contemporaryfemalelawyer’s?Did any of her encounters particularly frustrate or anger you as a reader? Did she face problems that you couldn’t imagine a lawyer today facing? On the other hand, have things not changed as much as we think?

2. What do you make of Perveen’s last meeting with Cyrus? How would you have felt in her position?

3. The difference between "modern" and "orthodox" religiosity is an important one in this book. Perveen’s parents, the Mistrys, are depicted as modern Parsis who educate their daughter and hope she will have a career. The Sodawallas, meanwhile are orthodox Parsis who still obey ancient purity laws that are now thought to be unhealthy and who expect their new daughter-in-law to leave her education behind and be a traditional housewife. The gap in the two families’ beliefs becomes violent and heartbreaking. How has this conversation about religious orthodoxy changed since the 1920s? How does it still relate to our 21st-century societies?

4. Why do you think Behnoush Sodawalla is so insistent that Perveen isolate herself? What do you think are the real reasons behind her strict Parsi traditionalism?

5. Meanwhile, in the Farid house in Bombay, the Muslim widows live in purdah, another form of religious orthodoxy. How do the Muslim and Parsi restrictions on women differ? How do they overlap? From each of the Farid widows’ points of view, what would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of living in purdah? Were you surprised by their decision to leave purdah at the end of the book?

6. What role does class play in the novel? How different would Perveen’s choices have been if she had not been from such a wealthy family? Do you think she would have been more or less likely to marry Cyrus, or more or less likely to leave him? What other choices of hers would have been impossible if she had come from a poor or middle-class family?

7. Meanwhile, Perveen is very accepting of her best friend’s homosexuality, but Alice’s parents are clearly not. How do you think Alice’s situation might have been different if she had not been as wealthy? How much advantage does she have as an expatriate? How do you think the flowering women’s rights movement will affect her? Do you think she’ll end up finding more freedom and happiness in India, as she hopes, or do you think she will eventually find gender roles and sexuality there to be just as stifling?

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It was fast-paced; a page turner from the start!

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A fun read and I learned a lot along the way.

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