The moment we heard about Perveen, India's first woman lawyer who solves crimes, we knew we had to get our hands on this book. And The Widows of Malabar Hill didn't disappoint. Sujata Massey paints a beautiful historical landscape of 1920s Bombay and the many cultures living there at the time. In our Q&A, Massey describes the inspiration for Perveen, her research process, and how she goes about writing her novels.
You’ve mentioned that the story of Perveen Mistry is partially inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, a real historical figure. What drew you to Cornelia’s story? Is The Widows of Malabar Hill based on one of Cornelia’s cases?
Ten years ago, I found an article about the first woman lawyer in the entire British Empire, who was an Indian woman educated at Oxford who worked in India from the 1890s through the 1920s. As I explored the history of Cornelia Sorabji, I realized she had written several memoirs and books with detailed descriptions of her legal investigations, defense cases, and more. She was such a brave and determined woman who persisted in fighting for the rights of women and children. It’s this overall approach to the working life of an early woman lawyer that informs The Widows of Malabar Hill. My novel is not based on a particular case, but the case in question is realistic. All the specifics of what happens to a family in a polygamous household after a husband dies is taken directly from the legal code in British India.
The Widows of Malabar Hill is set in 1920s Bombay, and you beautifully capture the time period. Could you describe what your research process is like? Did you uncover anything in your research that surprised you?
Gosh, the research process is my favorite part of being a writer. I can’t think of a better way to spend day that diving into some old newspapers at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, or in the stacks at the Ames Library of South Asia at the University of Minnesota, or in the original 19th-century library inside Wilson College in Mumbai. It is my dream to escape inside old books and pictures. While reading, I hand-write or type notes, and in a worst case scenario with little time, I snap pictures of the pages with my iPhone to read later. Once I’ve collected a sense of the events of the time, I outline the novel. I research first, and that gives me the ideas for the story itself. Of course, once I’m underway, there are many things I need to check—say, how you would address a maharani who is a widow, or how you would travel upstairs to the bar at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. When most of my book is written, I plan a trip to the necessary locations. I make a skeleton calendar of appointments with sources in that country, so that I hit the ground running. Happily, these interviews always lead to meeting more people. I have made some terrific friends in India through my work. The nice thing about doing a series is I can return to see these people again over the years. As a series progresses, the research becomes a lot swifter and easier to do.
With all of your research and attention to historical detail, what drew you to writing a mystery novel as opposed to writing a historical novel?
Widows is a historical mystery. I’ve written contemporary mystery for the first sixteen years of my career. I’ve also written straightforward historical fiction. My 2013 book, The Sleeping Dictionary, is a saga-type novel set in Bengal from the 1920s through 1947. That was a “book of the heart” that took many years to write. Because it was literary fiction, it was a harder book to sell to a publisher; it took eighteen months, while the sale of my very first book took six weeks. The reviews of my historical novel were strong, but there were just a few reviewers that read it; it’s much easier to get mystery reviews. By writing historical mystery, I can combine two loves in one book, and the readership and review opportunities are more plentiful.
Perveen’s parents are very supportive of her decisions, even though Perveen often runs headlong into some troubling situations. Are Perveen’s parents unusual for the time period, or did many Indian parents in the 1920s support their daughters in the pursuit in education and independence?
Perveen’s father wants her to be Bombay’s first woman lawyer. He’s so gung ho about it that she feels she has no choice! Members of their religious community—the Parsis, as Indian Zoroastrians are called—were quite progressive in their aim for women to achieve respected positions. A daughter’s glory reflected on the family. This was not a pattern in every single Indian family, of course, but it was a real trend among wealthy, educated, urban Indians.
Perveen is a vibrant, independent woman pursuing an advanced degree and a career. Why do you think it’s so important to feature this type of woman so prominently in a historical time period when we normally think women as restricted in regards to educational and career opportunities?
One of the reasons I chose to set the book in the 1920s is that it was a time that women of all ethnicities—European and American as well as Indian—were working for emancipation. Women had just achieved voting rights in many places, but they faced open discrimination in education, employment, and often when it came to inheriting property and money. How did women at the times work around some of these problems while still keeping their families attached to them and also working within the law? I find that question can spawn an infinite number of stories. Thinking creatively about tough situations and sharing the burden with other women is a strategy that can help when women’s rights are challenged in 2018.
What are some other books you’d recommend to readers who want to read more about India during this time period?
My previous book, The Sleeping Dictionary, tells the story of a young woman who’s an underground freedom activist in Calcutta during World War II. I also recommend reading the novels of India’s great renaissance man, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) who often wrote from a woman’s point of view and explored issues of personal freedom, social class, and nationalism. His novels and stories show beyond a doubt what life was like at the time. Home and the World, is one of my favorites. Two excellent contemporary writers of are crafting mystery series set in India during the 1920s. Arjun Raj Gaind writes about a maharaja of a princely kingdom who solves crimes with great aplomb; first in his series is A Very Pukka Murder. Also, Abir Mukherjee has created a team of a British police captain and an Indian Lieutenant working in gritty British Raj Calcutta. A Rising Man is the first in that series.
Who are some of your favorite female writers?
There are so man that it’s hard to name them all. Anna Maria Alfieri writes a beautiful, socially relevant mystery series about a progressive white woman in pre-World War I British East Africa. Other women mystery authors I read regularly are Laura Lippman, Marcia Talley, Jacqueline Winspear and Cara Black.
Do you have anything you’re working on now? Will we see more of Perveen Mistry?
For sure! The second book in the Perveen series is titled The Satapur Moonstone and is set in princely India; it comes out in February 2019. I’m just getting started on writing the third Perveen book, which will come out in 2020. This third book delves into the social challenges for women college students in the 1920s and the rising fight against British rule. I am getting help from the Mani Bhavan museum in Bombay, which is the home where Mahatma Gandhi lived in during the 1920s, and historic Wilson College, which admitted women from the beginning.
Sujata Massey is the author of 14 books published in 16 countries. She’s best known for the Rei Shimura mysteries set in modern Japan and now, the Perveen Mistry series set in 1920s India that starts with The Widows of Malabar Hill. Sujata’s books have won the Agatha and Macavity awards and been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark prizes. Sujata grew up mostly in St. Paul, MN, although she now lives with her family in Baltimore. Traveling in Asia is her greatest escape, and she does it as often as possible!