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A murder mystery that is also a comment on the woman question

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A Murder on Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Fehmida Zakeer

Perveen Mistry, the lawyer-turned-detective in the book, A Murder on Malabar Hill, first made an appearance in the novella titled Outnumbered at Oxford published in 2015. In that story, Perveen is studying law at St. Hilda’s in Oxford — one of the few Indians studying at Oxford in the early 1900s.

An elderly mathematics professor requests her assistance in locating some important papers that had gone missing along with the Indian help who had been serving the student working on the papers. Perveen’s English friend Alice Hobson-Jones, a mathematics student, helps Perveen in solving the case, just as she does in the present novel.

A complicated case

Modelled after the first woman to study law at Oxford, Cornelia Sorabjee, and the first Indian woman lawyer, Mithan Tata Lam, to appear before a judge, Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry works mainly on contracts and deeds in her father’s law firm.

Even after graduating in law, Perveen cannot argue cases because women do not yet have the permission to be admitted to the bar association. When a client dies, Perveen notices a discrepancy in the disbursement of dowers to the three widows of their late client, Omar Farid.

Perveen wants to find out first hand if the women, who lived in seclusion, were aware of the rights they had signed away. But she has a hard time convincing her father since the guardian for the women was appointed by none other than their late client.

When she finally convinces him and meets the women and Farid Mukri, the guardian, her suspicions only increase. Before she can do more about it, a murder happens in the household and she finds herself investigating a far more complicated case than she had imagined.

The chapters flit between the past and the present, simultaneously giving us the story of Perveen’s life and her attempts to find out the truth about the happenings at the Farid bungalow. Perveen was studying law at the Government Law College in Bombay when she met the handsome Cyrus Sodawalla who had come visiting from Calcutta.

A romance had brewed between them and she had found in it a good reason to give up her studies, which anyway were being derailed by the hostility of the male students and professors who could not come to terms with a woman studying law.

But the situation warps when Perveen realises that greed was the primary motive behind the exuberant love displayed by her beau and his family.

Authentic touch

To get her out of the marriage, Perveen’s father must convince the jury that his daughter had suffered at the hands of her husband. If he fails to get the jury to vote favourably, it would mean sending Perveen back to her matrimonial home, as prescribed by Parsi law. Perveen’s story unfolds in tandem with her efforts to uncover the secrets of the Farid household.

Massey’s expertise lies in the way she brings alive a bygone era. The everyday details she uses immediately transport you to the Bombay or Calcutta of the early 1900s.

The descriptions of food and the attire of the characters lend authenticity to the setting while also supporting the unfolding plot.

If I had to pinpoint any section that seemed a bit forced, it would be the whirlwind romance and the subsequent unravelling of Perveen’s marriage.

But considering the circumstances surrounding the romance, maybe the sense of urgency that the episode evokes is what the author intended to bring out.

It is to Massey’s credit that in spite of the need for inclusion of law points relating to not one but two religions, Islam and Parsi, the narrative flows easily. Perveen Mistry is a memorable and interesting character whom one hopes to meet again soon when she has yet another mystery to solve.

The writer is an author and poet. Her short stories have been published in many magazines and journals.

Courtesy The Hindu

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