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Solving a Crime in Old Bombay and Also Exposing Discriminatory Laws Against Women

Sujata Massey’s latest whodunit brings back her intrepid Parsi lawyer Parveen Mistry.
Bombay in 1920s. Photo: The Library of Congress, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades the genre of murder mysteries has proliferated at a rapid pace in the country. The murders may or may not be very interesting. Yet we read these works because most of them recreate the uncertain and insecure environment of urban sprawls, marked by anomie, disrespect for human lives, ineptly implemented laws, and discrimination.

Today Tarquin’s detective Vish Puri attracts considerable attention, as does Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Ashwin Chopra who is assisted by a baby elephant. Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man introduces us to a former Scotland Yard Detective Captain Samuel Wyndham, who joins the police force in Calcutta after the ending of World War I. Anita Nair’s mystery novels have Inspector Borei Gowda investigating murders while negotiating a difficult personal life.

Regrettably no one, till now, has created a detective who captures our imagination the way Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple, Adam Dalgliesh, or Inspector Morse do. But some detectives are rather engaging. Think of the nervous but lovable Inspector Ghote in A Perfect Murder, one of the first detective novels written by an Englishman, HRF Keating, who incidentally never visited India before he wrote his earliest books. Still the work gave us some wonderful descriptions of life in Bombay in the 1980s.

Sujata Massey. The Mistress of Bhatia House:Perveen Mistry Investigates. Penguin Random House (2023)

Sujata Massey, based in the US, introduced us to Perveen Mistry – one of the first women Parsi lawyers in Bombay of the 1920s. This was a time when laws rampantly discriminated against women. Perveen launches her own struggle against these unjust laws. In an instance from Massey’s novel The Mistress of Bhatia House, Perveen, committed to the welfare of vulnerable domestic workers exploited by households they work for as well as by powerful men, intervenes in a discussion in a court of law about the grant of bail to Sunanda, “[S]he had to remind the judge of the fact that Sunanda wasn’t homeless, nor was she unemployed”.

Perveen squares her shoulders, lays her Swaine Adeney briefcase on the table and introduces herself to the magistrate as a solicitor employed at Mistry Law, number ten Bruce Street. “I am counsel for Miss Chavda, a hardworking children’s ayah (nanny) in the household of Lord Dwarkanath Bhatia in Ghatkopar. I wish to explain why my client should not be required to pay bail.”

Commanded by the judge to establish her credentials, Perveen tells him that she had completed the bachelor of civil law education at Oxford University. “Following this, I clerked at Freshfields which granted me the rank of a solicitor.” But, as the magistrate well knows, she could not take the law exam simply because women were not allowed to sit for the exam. Nor could she join the London or the Bombay Bar. An incensed magistrate tells her that she has no business to speak in a court of law, and that she should be punished for this impertinence. He demands that she leaves the courtroom.

Our intrepid lawyer has to tolerate the ridicule of her male colleagues, even as she comes to terms with the disappointing reality that she can never argue in a courtroom. She decides to continue her pursuit of justice by other means, such as an investigation into the circumstances that led to Sunanda’s arrest.

Towards the end of the novel Perveen requests the advocate general to release Sunanda. Her argument is a telling commentary on the vulnerability of women. “If an unmarried woman is exposed for having had intercourse, she is likely to lose the chance to work in a respectable occupation, or to remain accepted by her parents and family. She would likely never find a groom willing to take her in marriage. And she is only twenty years old.” The argument is familiar. Even today, the law fails to protect women from their families, employers, and predatory males.

We know from an earlier novel that Perveen Mistry has been in an abusive marriage. The law, however, does not sanction divorce on grounds of domestic violence. She now lives in her parental home, practices law in her father’s firm, and passionately fights for justice for defenseless women. She is young, attractive and has enough confidence to enter into a relationship with a Britisher, Colin, even though she knows that the future of the affair is uncertain. Yet she is overcome with endearing uncertainty when she has to decide what to wear at the Lawyers’ Ball. She “needed to look just right; not so glamorous that others would doubt her ability, but she could not fade into the woodwork”. Many professional women would understand her dilemma.

According to the informal rules set by authors of classical detective fiction, from Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie, to Dorothy Sayers, in the early part of the twentieth century, the detective reconstructs the social context of a murder to negotiate the prime question – ‘who done it?’ No crime, let alone a murder, takes place in isolation; it is located in a social order that breeds greed, malice, desire, and violence. As our detective proceeds to uncover the dynamics behind a crime, she unearths the lies, the hypocrisy and the ugliness of society. This is the precise route followed by Perveen. Belonging to an upper-class and privileged Parsi household, she has access to other rich and powerful homes like that of Lord Dwarkanath Bhatia and his warring daughters-in-law who live in Ghatkopar ten miles from Bombay, and the mansion of a Nawab and his Australian wife.

Perveen’s social status secures her access to the exclusionary Yacht Club, and the equally exclusive Taj hotel. She has the confidence to extract information from her British friends, and consult with Miriam Penkar, the sole Indian female obstetrician-gynecologist in Bombay. As the quintessential detective Perveen spots clues that are invisible to others, analyses the implications of random conversations with acuity and wisdom, and uses logical reasoning to construct an explanatory framework. She slowly and systematically uncovers a social order that preys on vulnerable women.

The (late) P.D James wrote in her Talking About Detective Fiction that the detective novels must involve a mystery that by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically, not by good luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from clues that are honestly, if deceptively, presented. Murder remains a unique crime, and carries an atavistic weight of repugnance, fascination and fear.

Massey’s detective ably recreates the social context of Sunanda’s arrest. But the two murders that occur rather late in the book are not particularly interesting. They are not central to the story at all. The first murder appears as an afterthought, and the second as unnecessary– and both disappoint. We get the context but not enough of the text. The narrative could have proceeded without two people losing their lives, one by accident the other by design. The book can well be placed in the genre of feminist writing on the travails of women who confront unjust laws and brutal men. No one quite needed to be murdered.


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