All literature is inherently political because the question of the stories we tell, or rather, whose stories we tell, or whose stories the world thinks are worthy of being told, is never a neutral, apolitical choice. This central concern — whose stories are worthy of being told — becomes even more heightened in historical fiction because in their attempt to situate a story within a specific time period, writers of historical fiction make choices: whose histories are being centred, whose presence in a historical time and place is being marginalised or elided completely, and what this centring of specific people’s stories at the cost of others’ does to a reader’s understanding of that historical period.
Historical fiction can be, and has been, an important way of giving certain groups of people — whom history has forgotten or ignored — a chance to have their stories told. Consider Amitav Ghosh, the master of this genre, devoting a sweeping trio of novels (the Ibis trilogy) to tell the stories of one of the most forgotten groups in the subcontinent’s colonial history: the indentured labourers or girmitiyas taken from Northern India to British colonies in the Caribbean in the 19th century. In The Widows of Malabar Hill, the first instalment of her new historical mystery series, Sujata Massey situates her story in a much less marginalised, but nevertheless relatively unexplored, historical period in contemporary Anglophone fiction: 1920s Bombay [Mumbai], where a Parsi woman becomes India’s first female solicitor and solves crime and mysteries.
Genre fiction, whether it is mystery, romance, science fiction or fantasy, is often considered too lowbrow or fluffy to be engaged in political concerns of representation and centring specific narratives over others — but of course, that is not true. Such narratives choices are made just as surely in genre fiction as in more literary, highbrow fiction. Massey’s historical novel is firmly situated within the mystery genre; it is a detective story with simple, non-literary prose that relies on many of the genre’s conventions without doing anything particularly revolutionary with them. But within the confines of the genre, Massey casually and without much fanfare centres the stories on people not often the centre of historical narratives — women in colonial India, belonging to various religious communities and social classes, trying to fulfil their professional and personal ambitions by negotiating the complex intersection of colonial, patriarchal and religious/ethnic power structures within which their lives exist.
The first of a series of mystery novels set in 1920s Bombay is flawed, but also offers promise
Massey, a British writer with Indian heritage, already has a 10-novel long mystery series set in contemporary Japan. The focus of her new series is on Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a well-to-do and respected Zoroastrian family living in 1920s Bombay. Having recently returned from studying law at the University of Oxford, Perveen is India’s first female solicitor and has joined her father’s law practice. Because women are not allowed to practice in court, she is stuck handling the firm’s more routine and mundane cases — mostly those pertaining to executing people’s wills. As the novel begins, Perveen is charged with handling the will of Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left behind three widows, all of whom are purdah-nasheen [observe the veil], living in strict seclusion in the zenana [women’s quarters] of the large Farid bungalow in the affluent neighbourhood of Malabar Hill. Their interaction with the outside world takes place primarily through a male guardian, a business associate of their husband’s. As Perveen goes over the intricacies of the will, she discovers something odd: all three widows have signed over their considerable inheritance to a charity. Perveen’s suspicions that something is amiss are confirmed when a murder takes place within the Farid household and, as a woman and solicitor, Perveen is uniquely positioned to gain access into the zenana to solve the mystery. Over the course of the narrative, Massey intertwines two timelines: the present, in which Perveen investigates the crime, and a decade earlier in Perveen’s life, which explores a personal tragedy and the events leading up to her decision to become a solicitor.
The novel has some definite flaws; the pacing is slow and a bit off, the two timelines are not integrated smoothly or organically enough, so it is not immediately clear what the presence of the two timelines together is trying to achieve, and the prose is somewhat clunky and stilted at times. It’s around the halfway point of the novel that things really start coming together, and that is pretty late in the game. In spite of these flaws, however, the novel does come together, with similar themes and concerns tying together the disparate timelines. The murder mystery is simple with only a handful of potential suspects, but it is intriguing enough to keep the reader engaged.
“But the pressing concern is that if a policeman touches the hands of a Muslim gentlewoman, the community could take serious offence.” ... “and in Bombay, this could mean severe political unrest. We are talking about Muslims defending their women’s honour and perhaps even sympathetic Hindus and Sikhs joining in their defence of the Indian female. Any chance to embarrass the government is a golden opportunity for the freedom movement.” — Excerpt from the book
More importantly, Massey utilises the historical time period of the novel — and her main character’s specific place in it — to great advantage, excavating stories about women’s agency and the intersections of gender, class and religion within colonial India. As Perveen gains entry into the Farid household zenana, the story truly takes off, with the complex dynamics between the three widows (two older and from respectable families, one much younger who met Omar Farid while working as a courtesan), and the ways in which these purdah-nasheen women negotiate between their personal ambitions and motivations and the larger system of seclusion, as well as the colonial legal system within which they must operate.
Massey gives these women the necessary three-dimensionality required to elevate them from the easy stereotype of the “oppressed, secluded Muslim woman.” Their lives, and the ways in which gendered practices of their religious communities affect their agency, are paralleled deftly with the misogyny Perveen faces as a woman in the completely male-dominated law school in Bombay she attends, as well as misogynist practices she faces within the Zoroastrian community, such as the custom of menstrual confinement that was practiced even within some elite, educated Parsi families. Perveen and the widows’ predicament is also interestingly juxtaposed with Perveen’s white British friend from Oxford, Alice, who has returned to live with her parents in India who work in the colonial government. Massey takes care not to present misogyny as a scourge affecting only the Indians (as colonial discourse of the time would have you believe), as she makes interesting connections in the ways Alice has to contend with sexism even within her social standing as a wealthy, white British woman, and whose situation is made more complex by her queer identity.
All in all, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a flawed but promising start to what seems like an intriguing series, and its unique historical and sociocultural setting as well as its preoccupation with giving voice to people often forgotten by mainstream history certainly makes it a worthy addition to the mystery genre.
The reviewer teaches comparative literature at Habib University
The Widows of Malabar Hill
By Sujata Massey
Soho Crime, US