I Read Memoirs on Women’s Rights in India: Q&A with A Murder at Malabar Hill’s Author, Sujata Massey

I Read Memoirs on Women’s Rights in India: Q&A with A Murder at Malabar Hill’s Author, Sujata Massey

Can you tell us the premise for A Murder at Malabar Hill?

Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer, studied in World War I England. It’s 1921, and she’s come home to work with her father at his law firm in Bombay. She has trouble getting clients willing to be represented by women, so she springs at the chance to work on the estate settlement for the three widows of a wealthy Muslim textile merchant. As she assists the widows in their movement toward emancipation, she is drawn back into complications of her own life story.

Is the central character, Perveen, based on a real historical figure?

Two early women lawyers practiced in late 19th century and early 20th century India: the first being the solicitor Cornelia Sorabji, who was the first woman in the British Empire to sit and pass the Oxford civil law examinations. The second advocate was the Bombay barrister Mithan Tata Lam. I read the memoirs of these incredible women to get an understanding for the kinds of cases they handled and especially, how they worked to gain women’s rights.

What sort of research did you undertake to understand/ write about pre-independence India?

I start with a lot of reading, including many old books about India that I find in university libraries. One of the rare books I read, a memoir by Cornelia Sorabji titled India Calling, came from a used bookseller in Australia. These books and maps are hard to find, and if I can add them to my library at home, I’m thrilled. Beyond books, I travel to Mumbai, as Bombay is now named, and I spend time talking with historians and members of the Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian community). I like to use as many authentic streets and buildings as possible, so I walk through the scenes I’ve drafted in the book when I return to Mumbai for fact-checking.

In your research of the law/ women’s rights of the time – was there anything that shocked/ surprised you?

What I learned was the British government authorized separate legal codes for the various Indian religions, such as Muslim law, Parsi law, and Hindu law. Christians in India were held to British common law. These different codes permitted marriage for girls as young as age 14 in some religions and denied divorce and female inheritance in others. The British believed if they stayed out of business within a man’s home, he would be more agreeable to their government. This realpolitik created some terrible situations for women.

What do you hope the reader will take away from A Murder at Malabar Hill?

It’s my wish that they will see an India with many different faiths, political views, and lifestyles. Perveen walks into a Muslim house and is astounded by the beautiful antiquities and lovely musical playing; her English friend Alice walks into Perveen’s home and is stunned by the delightful, spicy food and the gracious, friendly manner of her relatives. I’ve heard from readers who have gone to India because they are inspired to look for this beauty for themselves.

Will Perveen’s story continue in a sequel?

Yes, indeed. The Satapur Moonstone is the second book, and it takes Perveen into the beautiful Western hill station country. She’s investigating the condition of a young maharaja who lives in an isolated palace. I’m also finishing up a third book in the series, which brings Perveen back to Bombay when Edward VIII, Prince of Wales, has arrived to tour India.

 

Reviews

Vivid, Rich, and Utterly Absorbing: Take a Sneak Peek at A Murder at Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Review | Extract

20 January 2020

Vivid, Rich, and Utterly Absorbing: Take a Sneak Peek at A Murder at Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

    An Absolute Pleasure: Read our Review of A Murder at Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

    Review | Our Review

    13 January 2020

    An Absolute Pleasure: Read our Review of A Murder at Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

      Publisher details

      A Murder at Malabar Hill
      Author
      Sujata Massey
      Publisher
      Allen & Unwin
      Released
      07 January, 2020

      Synopsis

      2019 American Library Association Reading List for Mystery: Winner and Top PickWinner of the 2019 Mary Higgins Clark AwardWinner of the 2019 Lefty Award for Best Historical NovelWinner of the the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Historical NovelFinalist for the 2019 Shamus Award'A Murder at Malabar Hill, with its deft prose and well-wrought characters, is a splendid first installment in what promises to be a memorable series.' The Wall Street Journal 'Marvelously plotted, richly detailed . . . This is a first-rate performance inaugurating a most promising series.' The Washington Post 'Perveen Mistry has all the pluck you want in a sleuthing lawyer, as well as a not-so-surprising - but decidedly welcome - proclivity for poking her nose into the business of others. The pages do indeed fly.' The Globe and MailInspired in part by the woman who made history as India's first female attorney, A Murder at Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay as well as the debut of a sharp and promising new sleuth.1920s Bombay: 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.
      Sujata Massey
      About the author

      Sujata Massey

      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, Shamus and Macavity awards and been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, Harper Lee Legal Fiction and Mary Higgins Clark prizes. A Murder at Malabar Hill was originally published in the United States under the title The Widows of Malabar Hill. Visit her website at sujatamassey.com.

      Books by Sujata Massey

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