Q&A with Baltimore writer Sujata Massey on her latest mystery novel, ‘The Widows of Malabar Hill’

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Mystery of 1920s Bombay: The Widows of Malabar Hill

I’m a terrible sleuth. I was once pranked by someone hiding all of my belongings in a different dorm room and it took me 10 years to figure out that the person who told me about it was the culprit. This is why I read mystery novels. I need to have faith that someone out there can solve these brain teasers, be it Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade or the protagonist in Sujata Massey’s latest novel, The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen Mistry. They and the writers behind them affirm that we’re not all clueless.

Long-time Baltimore resident and Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars graduate Massey sets her lush new mystery in Bombay in the 1920s. It follows Mistry as she moves from the office of her father, a Parsi lawyer, to her adventures. Following an inspection of a client’s will, she discovers irregularities with how the client’s three widows—all of whom live in purdah, or seclusion—have signed away their respective inheritances to charity.

As soon as she begins poking around, things escalate. There’s anger and murder followed by distrust and violence directed against the female lawyer. There are conflicts between the many different religions of India and within Mistry herself, as her identity as one of the Zoroastrian minority forbids her from divorce or remarriage; there’s her unhappy first marriage’s necessary and insightful backstory. And, of course, there’s the character of Bombay and early 19th century India, with overwhelmingly vivid sensory detail.

There’s so much to admire in Massey’s writing: sumptuous details, attention to the senses and a tightly-plotted mystery that explores domains beyond normal trials and tribulations. It’s writing that’s easy to take for granted, but as we know, anything that easy is deceptively hard.

When reading The Widows of Malabar Hill, I found myself reacting strongly to human moments. A description of a wedding feast—“…steamed fish, fried chicken, egg curry, lamb curry, sago crisps, carrot-and-raising pickle, and an extravagantly seasoned mutton pulao. Dessert was kulfi and lagan nu custard, but Perveen was too full to manage more than a few spoonfuls of each…”  The details might be different, but a wedding is a wedding. And how these details built to create the wonderful character of Perveen—well that’s just one of the many questions I had to ask Massey.

BFB: Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for your main character in The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen Mistry?

Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam were India’s first two women lawyers. Cornelia worked in the 1890s through the 1920s, and Mithan Tata Lam worked in the 1920s. They shared an ethnic Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian) heritage, although Cornelia was a practicing Christian. Because these legal pioneers came from southwest India, called Bombay Presidency, I placed Perveen there, gave her a Parsi family and created a similar career for her.

I am grateful India’s early women lawyers left memoirs for me to read. If I hadn’t known these lawyers lived the way they did, I would have had a hard time pulling together a story that I believed in.

BFB: Your main characters are powerful, intelligent women. How does this focus affect your writing, your audience?

From three decades of data collection by Sisters in Crime, we know things are improving; however, it is still the case that male authors are more likely to have their books reviewed.  A number of authors use an initial rather than a first name in order to get crossover interest.

Most of the stories in my head are about women and have a connection with Asia. I am always heartened when men will look past a purple cover and read the book because it’s about a country or time period that interests them. I hope that the overlap of categories (colonial history, women’s rights, India, traditional, mystery, legal thrillers) will bring all kinds to The Widows of Malabar Hill.

BFB: The Widows of Malabar Hill is a mystery. What about mystery writing attracts you? 

I get excited about writing stories that have a cascade of events, suspense, and strong characters. I enjoy rising to the challenge given by the reader, that a book must go somewhere they don’t expect. This sounds like a very simple premise, but it really means doing something that a lot of literary novels don’t attempt. I believe mystery readers are less likely to abandon a book because they understand that mystery writers will not let them down.

BFB: What was the publication process like?

I found the publication of The Widows of Malabar Hill my best publishing experience in 20 years. Soho is a small independent publishing house established 31 years ago for the sake of interesting, well-written books that didn’t fit a common mold. The house has kept its author list small and been very successful, with its main profits coming from the mystery imprint Soho Crime that focuses on internationally set books. Because there are fewer books, it is possible for marketing and publicity to give a full-court press to everyone. Soho’s books are sold to bookstores by Random House, which means they are put on equal footing with the big guns.

BFB: Your book is rich with sensory details. Is your everyday life spent devouring your exterior world?

I do not regard myself as a very observant person. However, I know I’ve got to communicate visually, through smell and sound. The way I build scenes goes back to my training as a newspaper journalist at the Baltimore Evening Sun. I would walk around the site of a story and scrawl down small details and weave them into the article later. Setting a scene is especially important when telling a story set in another country a century ago.

I am grateful that Mumbai government and business establishments have preserved a lot of grand heritage buildings from before India’s 1947 independence, still used for [original] purposes.

In that way, Mumbai is like Baltimore.

BFB: Speaking of the Evening Sun, how does your background in journalism inform your writing?

I was a features reporter for five very happy years, right when I got out of college. During my senior year in Hopkins, I did the “crime desk” roundup, calling police stations to find out whether anyone was killed between Friday and Sunday. In the 1980s, there was a larger population in our city and fewer deaths. So you can say I started out with crime, although I didn’t write investigative crime stories.

What I took from [that experience] is an understanding that I liked building pictures of places and people with words; that the details had to be accurate. This has led me to do things in fiction like chase down the actual routes of extinct tram lines, search for old hotel menus, and the like. This adds something to the work that readers pick up on and enjoy.

BFB: You were born in England, studied in Baltimore, write about Asia. The Widows of Malabar Hill also delves into religion, class differences and homosexuality. How do you approach this multi-national, socio-political writing?

Nothing is calculated to be a political science lecture. If I intended to show all the social issues that eventually turn up, the book would fail. I begin with a city and time; events that did or might have happened; characters with whom I’d like to spend 400 pages.

For Widows, I only knew I wanted to write about a woman lawyer in early twentieth-century India. As I began studying how laws of British colonial India affected women of different religions, I learned that domestic violence was not a crime–nor automatic grounds for divorce. Right there was a great building block for the plot, and yes, it is a social issue that still resonates.

Writing about the nature of discrimination against Indians was tricky. During British rule, it was not a blanket situation where every Indian was treated badly. There were groups of economically privileged Indians such as the Parsis and Anglo-Indians who were awarded building contracts or had designated jobs, like the railways, set aside for them. I had to look at the way Hindus treated each other and how various religious groups felt about Muslims. And in every group, there are people, including women and daughters, who feel differently from what the community leaders tell them.

I began planning and writing this book prior to the political election. But since January 2017, my experience writing about a population’s discord with a government that seems unfair and unassailable has taken on a timely note. Indians lived with an oppressive government for centuries, as opposed to months, and Indians working together were able to change power at the top. While researching my books and exploring the lives of Perveen Mistry and her family, I’m learning patience and strategies that give me courage for today.

Check Sujata Massey’s website for forthcoming local readings (including May 12 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Roland Park Branch).



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