At the end of last month I finished up the audiobook of The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, for the category of “a cozy mystery.”
February was exceptionally busy (and high pain) for me, so I was pretty distracted through many parts of the book, but I listened while I was doing admin work and laundry and dishes and driving. I’m pretty excited about having finished a third book in the month of February!
So, first impressions:
I loved this book.
I would not have identified myself as a fan of the mystery genre when I started the Read Harder challenge. It’s not a genre that I seek out, but this book inspired such a strong sense of nostalgia in me – I remembered many hours spent watching Sherlock Holmes and Poirot and Inspector Morse and Cadfael and Lovejoy with my family, and I connected to that sense of delight and curiosity that accompanies a mystery. It had been years since I thought about any of those shows. (With the obvious exception that I squealed delightedly at seeing Ian McShane as Odin in American Gods.)
This experience of realizing that I do enjoy a genre was really interesting to me, because one of the core principles of narrative therapy is the idea that lives are “multi-storied” – that there are many true stories of a single life, and they might contradict each other but they can still coexist. I would have not identified myself as a mystery lover, but I discovered (rediscovered) that I do actually love mysteries, and I have loved mysteries for a long time! I love Elementary, but I had considered my love to be more about the gender politics and my epic crush on both Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller.
This was such a lovely invitation to become close to parts of my history that I had grown distant from, and it was really cool to see some of the principles I’ve learned about in the process of becoming a narrative practitioner become so clear in my own life.
Even beyond this little narrative adventure, the book itself is delightful.
Perveen Mistry, a Parsi and the first woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay, is fierce and feminist, and her character was inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to pass the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford.
One of my favourite things about the book was the focus on cultural context. Perveen is critical of British colonial rule, and her politics are woven throughout the book. She also talks about the different cultural groups present in Bombay and Calcutta (the two cities where the book takes place).
One thing that I felt was missing was a robust class analysis. There’s not much of it, and like many books and movies and shows, taking the economic mostly out of the picture makes it easier to bring forward other issues. I understand the benefits of locating all of the main characters in the upper class, and I did appreciate that despite the setting, there were moments of class analysis. Most notably, I appreciated when Perveen responds to a British woman’s question about safety, based on the fact that most major crimes in Bombay were committed by servants, by noting how many of India’s people live in poverty (meaning, most of the people in the country are poor, so of course most of the people committing crimes are poor), and how they are more likely to be arrested and convicted than a wealthier person who did the same thing. I am always here for a call-out of carceral injustice.
The gender politics in the book were central. A significant portion of the book takes place in the Farid zenana, where the Muslim widows (of the title) observe purdah (separation of the sexes). There are moments when Perveen (and by extension the author, and by invitation the reader) expresses sadness and concern for the purdahnashin, for their lack of freedom and access. However, the book resists leaning too hard into this perspective, challenging both Perveen and the reader by revealing the widows to each have more agency and more insight than anticipated. And the Muslim women are not singled out as uniquely vulnerable to exploitation – the Parsi tradition of secluding menstruating women is also prominent, and critiqued.
(Reading this book as a white, 21st century Canadian, there is an easy invitation to locate myself in a position of moral judgement when it comes to these cultural practices, but I tried as a reader, and will try as a reviewer, to refuse that position. Christianity, which is my own cultural background, has its own long and ongoing history of violent misogyny. I do think that there is a real risk of readers in my social context engaging in judgmental voyeurship, but that’s a problem with white supremacy and ongoing colonialism, rather than a problem with the book itself.)
Although British colonial power is evident throughout the narrative (Indian Independence Day wasn’t until 1947, and the book takes place between 1916 and 1921), the focus is not on either British control or British customs. Sujata Massey consistently brings a focus to the long cultural traditions of the Indian communities, particularly the Parsi communities (Perveen talks about her ancestors arriving hundreds of years prior from Persia) and the Muslim communities. This pushes the British out of the center of the narrative, and creates a sense of complex and ongoing Indian culture.
I really enjoyed this book. February was a difficult and emotionally draining month, and The Widows of Malabar Hill was a welcome lightness threaded through the background. (And the narrator was great. Very highly recommended.)
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!
My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”
My review of Fifteen Dogs for “a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.”