The Widows of Malabar Hill
by Sujata Massey
Cover Artist: Andrew Davidson
Review by Mel Jacob
Soho Crime Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616957780
Date: 09 January 2018
Set in the 1920s in Bombay India, The Widows of Malabar Hill depicts the life of cloistered Muslim wives and the efforts of the first Indian female lawyer to help them in the aftermath of their husband's death and the murder of their guardian soon after. However, it is also about the role and rights of women in both India and British society in India.
The novel focuses on Perveen Mistry's struggle for an education and the role of religious beliefs regarding women's place within society. Fortunately for her, she comes from a liberal family and has their full support for her desire to become India's first female lawyer.
When Perveen first meets the widows, her goal is to ensure the widows fully understand the settlements made by their deceased husband. She suspects at least one wife's signature is forged on a form that would cede those rights to a family foundation originally established to help wounded Indian soldiers. It quickly becomes clear the widows have been duped by their guardian.
Interspersed are chapters detailing Perveen's initial attempt to study law in Bombay and her disastrous marriage to a man from Calcutta. His treatment of her left emotional scars. Because of her past, she is determined to see the widows are treated fairly. Learning the depth of deception affects the widows deeply. Their primary concerns are for their children and their futures.
Perveen's English friend, Lady Alice, newly arrived from England is a bit of a rebel and chafes against the strictures imposed on her by her parents. While freer than the widows, she is restricted by her parents' political position.
The author provides insight into the time, place, and differences among various social and religious groups in 1920 India. She explores the effects of these on women and how these factors shape their lives. The character, Perveen Mistry, is based on a real Indian woman who became India's first female lawyer. Massy draws the reader into a world very different from modern society.
This novel is billed as the first in a series. In this age of "Me Too", it will be interesting to see how the series develops. A discussion booklet is also available.