by Grace Topping
As a long-time fan of Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura mystery series, I was thrilled to learn that she was coming out with a new series—this one set in India. I had the good fortune to read an advance copy of the first book in the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill, and I knew immediately that it was special. That sense was confirmed when it went on to win the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel, Left Coast Crime’s Bruce Alexander Memorial Award for Best Historical Mystery, and the Macavity’s Sue Feder Memorial Award for Best Historical Mystery. It was also selected for Publisher’s Weekly Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2018 and was an Amazon Best Book of 2018. The second book in the series, The Satapur Moonstone, went on to win additional honors. It was a privilege to be able to talk to Sujata about her main character Perveen Mistry and the third book in her series, The Bombay Prince.
Note: Sujata has offered a signed copy of The Bombay Prince to be awarded to one of the readers leaving a comment below within the next seventy-two hours.
Welcome, Sujata, to Writers Who Kill.
Your Rei Shimura series set in Japan was quite successful. What prompted you to select India for your new series?
India had become more important in my life. My children were in an Indian culture school on the weekends, and as a parent, I found myself also dancing and studying Hindi alongside them. I had the fortunate circumstance of one Indian parent and two Indian stepparents living near me during this period. As we shared stories, I became drawn to the idea of writing about India—especially that of the recent past. It was concerning to me that beautiful old buildings were being supplanted by shopping malls, and I wanted to keep alive the historic neighborhoods I’d wandered during my visits to India.
Why did you select law as a career path for Perveen Mistry?
While researching the history of Indian women, I learned that the first woman lawyer in the British Empire, Cornelia Sorabji, started working as a solicitor in the 1890s. Cornelia wrote wonderful memoirs that detail the close calls she had while trying to represent the interests of women clients during this time period. Making Perveen a solicitor gives her a believable chance to be near crime, intrigue, and death at a time that most women in India were not moving freely throughout society.
With Perveen Mistry being an attorney, do you consider the books in the series to be legal thrillers?
I like to describe them as historical legal mysteries. I’m delighted that the first two books in the series were nominated for the Harper Lee Legal Fiction Award given by the University of Alabama Law School. There is a lot of legal action including courtroom scenes in The Widows of Malabar Hill and The Bombay Prince. The Satapur Moonstone is set in the countryside, and there is the threat of legal trouble, but my storytelling in this book employs law in a different way from a typical legal mystery.
You’ve said that Cornelia Sorabji was the first woman to study law at the University of Oxford and the first female attorney in India. Did your studies of her inspire Perveen Mistry or did you base your story on her experiences?
I did not base directly on Cornelia because of some significant differences: she was never married, a Christian, and wanted the British to stay in power. What did inspire me was that, undergoing tremendous personal risk and hardship, Cornelia represented hundreds of women clients, both in private practice and as a government agent.
Also, India’s first woman barrister, Mithan Tata Lam, who was a Bombay Parsi woman educated in law at Oxford, returned from her studies to work in Bombay in the 1920s. Mithan did a tremendous amount of activist work for women’s rights in India, and later became a professor of law and Bombay’s first woman sheriff. She herself is another inspiration for Perveen Mistry.
Perveen was born into a family of Parsis. Can you explain what that is? What does that mean for her place in Indian society?
“Parsi” is a word meaning “Persian” and Parsis are the Zoroastrian immigrants who left Persia to live in India from 700 AD through about 1900. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that predates Judaism and Christianity. The values of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” are the motto for Zoroastrians to live by. As a Parsi, Perveen can only marry someone within her own faith—and it’s also very hard for her to leave a marriage. Religious laws around marriage and divorce differed for Parsis, Muslims, and Hindus. Only after independence from the British did things begin to become more standardized.
You show a different side of India than often portrayed in books or movies (the poverty, etc.). Please tell us about Perveen’s place in a society that is ruled by a class system?
I feel that all countries—including the US—are struggling to overcome unwritten class discrimination. During their time colonizing India, the British felt more favorable toward Parsi people and gave preferential treatment to them for work contracts and political positions. Some affluent Parsis wore Western rather than Indian clothing, or a combination of both styles, as Perveen does with her imported French lace blouses worn underneath Indian-woven saris. Perveen is poised in both British and Indian settings, so that makes her an especially good sleuth. And a significant number of Parsis were leaders in the Indian Independence movement, seeing themselves as Indians first and foremost.
You write about the struggles of women in 1920’s India and Perveen’s desire for freedom—for women and for herself. Can you tell us about Perveen’s personal drive for freedom?
Perveen comes from an enlightened and loving family who wanted her to become the city’s first woman solicitor. Yet it’s very important to them that she not do anything scandalous that would embarrass her father and ruin the reputation of his small law practice. Therefore, Perveen must be scrupulous in her behavior, the friends she chooses, and how she expresses herself. She walks a particularly fine line around politics. In her heart, she’s for Indian independence; but many of her father’s friends are against it, and the legal hierarchy is headed by the British. Because Perveen is trapped by restrictive laws around divorce, she wants very much to help other women make use of what rights they have.
As a modern-day author writing about Perveen’s life and career in the early part of the twentieth century, was it difficult to stay true to the time period? What about including the politics of the time?
I feel comfortable writing in this time period. I read books written during the 1920s and earlier, and I also read a lot of historians’ papers and books. Politics of the time are so exciting. Mahatma Gandhi was a practicing lawyer and activist living in Bombay during the time of my novel. Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the first governor-general of Pakistan, was a popular barrister in Bombay in the 1920s. These two influence some events in the Perveen books, though I am careful not to put my own made-up words into their mouths. That could be very confusing and offensive. Historical authors have to be extremely careful when they blend fact with fiction. For instance, Muhammed Ali Jinnah and his wife Ruttie really did go to the Orient Club luncheon. And Mr. Jinnah really was a criminal defense barrister. But was he involved with the fictitious defendant in The Bombay Prince? No.
Food plays a big part in family life in India. You’ve said that you can learn a lot about people through the food choices they make. How so?
Food choices can show a family’s wealth, poverty, religious observance, and cosmopolitan nature. In The Bombay Prince, the Cuttingmaster family eats very simple food while in mourning and won’t go to restaurants. A very special meat and lentil curry called dhansak is eaten by Parsis emerging from the first mourning period. The British living in India liked some Indian dishes, and also brought their own favorite dishes, like custards and fancy sandwiches, into standard Indian cuisine. The Mistrys specifically have a Goan Christian cook in their household because Goan Indians were often Catholic and could cook any kind of meat (Parsis were meat-eaters) and were reputed to be talented with pastry and puddings.
Was it a challenge doing the research you needed to make your books so authentic, especially during COVID? Were you able to draw on your family’s experiences?
I was fortunate to have visited India in January 2020, when I could enjoy Mumbai in the usual way. I don’t think I drew on family experiences for the Perveen books; however, I did draw on the recollections of historians that I’d either read or heard in conversation.
One of the biggest challenges to writing a book set in another culture is to give it a sense of place. Based on the reception of your books, you’ve done that successfully. What contributed the most to that?
Thank you so much for this kind compliment. I think that giving a sense of place is helped by visiting that place many times. The magic that happens when I’m over there is connection—connection to the history of the streets I’m walking, and to the area’s historians and long-time residents. That’s how I grab the intimate, insider details for the Perveen novels. As the pandemic recedes—I hope!—I aim to spend longer time periods in India.
Books set in India have become popular. What do you think accounts for that?
Well, it might look like a boom because one sees names like Pandian, Mukherjee, March, Majumdar and Anappara winning awards and receiving great reviews in the mystery community. I think that once a reader’s feet get wet with one good book set in an unfamiliar country, they may want to try more—and this is something publishers pick up on.
When you wrote the first books in the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill, did you envision it becoming a series?
Yes, I hoped it would be a new series. I wrote that book in a slightly different style than I usually do, with flashbacks to Perveen’s earlier years. The point was to thoroughly explain her origins and how she came to be such a hardworking lawyer with a difficult past. I also laid out Perveen’s marital status situation in a way that she could work unencumbered by a man in future books. I introduced characters in that first book who would work well in subsequent books. I’m referring to her father, Jamshedji Mistry, her good friend Alice Hobson-Jones, and Mustafa, the butler at Mistry House.
What have you enjoyed the most from the terrific reception of your series by readers and reviewers?
I’ve really enjoyed what happened when we all learned to use Zoom and other live-streaming platforms for book events. What a joy it’s been to meet virtually with readers in other parts of the world during the pandemic—not just at bookstores but small-town book-clubs and libraries in the United States and India and Australia. I learn so much from these meetings where readers have a voice.
What’s next for Perveen Mistry?
I’m working on a fourth book in the series that isn’t yet titled. It’s set in Bombay and deals with women’s reproductive health. In the 1920s, most babies born in Bombay did not live past one year of age, and the leading cause of death for women was childbirth. In this book, Perveen gets close to the city’s first female obstetrician and some other Indian women trying to start up a hospital; and she winds up representing an ayah (nanny) accused of attempting abortion. Perveen’s own family becomes entwined in the controversies and challenges.
Thank you, Sujata.
For additional information about Sujata Massey and her books, visit www.sujatamassey.com