Book Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

The widows of malabar hill

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Bombay, 1921: 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 her especially devoted to championing and protecting women’s rights.
Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.
The Farid widows live in purdah: 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 about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It’s her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.

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I really can’t recall how but I just somehow stumbled upon the sequel of this book when it released a couple of months ago, and was pleasantly surprised to know that a pre-independence era India historical mystery series existed. It instantly captured my attention and I decided I had to start at the beginning, and I’m so happy I did.

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I don’t think I’ve read many historical books set in India, especially ones which don’t have anything to do with the freedom struggle. This was such a contrast because the author gives us a look into the affluent Parsi community in 1920s Bombay, who are rich and cultured, British educated and have respected professions. I thought the author did a brilliant job bringing the rich culture and customs of the Parsi community alive through her descriptions – I especially enjoyed getting to know the wedding ceremony details and all the different kinds of Persian and Irani food, and also some very interesting insights into Parsi marital laws. (There was one offhand mention of a sweet from my state of Andhra which is hardly known outside, so that really delighted me). On the other hand, we also get to know about the Muslim women who decide to live under purdah and the way they conduct their affairs under the circumstances – all while never casting aspersions on the custom itself. We also get to know the struggles the women faced during the time, despite being highly educated and qualified and it truly gives us an appreciation for such amazing women and their allies who fought for all the rights we enjoy today. The authors lists many sources towards the end of the book and I’m really thankful for that, as it gives me an opportunity to explore more about my country’s history. The story is told in two timelines, the past detailing the MCs married life and the present following her as she tries to solve a murder mystery and protect her clients. The writing was very good at balancing both the aspects, and while the mystery wasn’t full of twists and turns, it had it’s tense moments that kept me glued. It took a while for the story to get going but about 30% into it, it got very interesting and I didn’t wanna put it down.

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Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in the city of Bombay, but she is still not allowed to appear in court and can only work as a solicitor. She is a vibrant, fiesty woman who is confident about her abilities and it really grates on her that she is disrespected or just dismissed because of her gender. The insight into her past marital issues also gives us an insight into how much she has changed over the years and the reason for some of her actions. She is a true go-getter, even impulsive sometimes, but I really enjoyed getting to know her. My only gripe was that she could be dismissive of her father sometimes despite him being one of her biggest champions.

Reading about her life immediately after marriage was a bit painful and I really felt for her, and I think it’s very relatable to many women even now who go from liberal parent’s homes to conservative or orthodox marital homes, and it’s such a tough adjustment. Her parents are really amazing and I loved reading how supportive they were of her, and believed her completely. Her best friend Alice is an Indian born British woman, and despite being Oxford educated herself, seems to be in a similar predicament unable to make her own choices. The best part of the book for me were definitely Perveen’s interactions with the three widows who were her clients. I loved how involved Perveen got into making sure they knew their rights and were able to provide for themselves and their kids. While she was reckless herself, she was much more concerned for their safety and went above and beyond to ensure that, and it really endeared me to her. While the mystery is resolved pretty easily, I thought the point of this book was more to setup the character of Perveen herself and acquaint us with her capabilities.

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Finally, I want to say that this was a surprisingly interesting, but very quiet historical mystery novel. The stakes never felt dangerous but definitely felt important and the author maintained a steady pace throughout, so I never felt bored. If you want to get a glimpse into 1920s Bombay and follow alongside a lawyer heroine while she takes on all the obstacles and prejudices in her way, then pick this book up and you won’t be disappointed.

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

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  1. Oh gosh. This sounds utterly lovely. I’m glad a lot more ancient-India themes are coming out. *crosses fingers* Come on Mohenjo-daro or Harappa. The last one I read in that theme was The Immortals of Meluha. And good god the movie was not okay.

    But I’m loving your review Sahi, there’s like this strange tenor to it that matches the mystery of the book. Especially when you spoke about the shifting of the writing between the past and the present. *goosebumps*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Ahana… this book setting was really unique… because it’s before independence but about people who have benefited from an English education and are much more modern than the general populace… it was such a fascinating read…
      I just got the sequel too and have to read it 😍😍

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I just got the sequel from the library… Hope that’ll be as interesting as this one 😊😊😊 Nice to have company because I’ve never heard anyone else I know talk about it…

      Liked by 1 person

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