Sujata Massey speaks about ‘The Bombay Prince’: ‘Good characters are like chess pieces’

The author of the Perveen Mistry mysteries says, some characters you throw into the game right away, and others are protected in the back row, reserved for important situations yet to come

January 11, 2022 12:51 pm | Updated January 12, 2022 12:09 pm IST

The Prince of Wales’, later Edward VIII, four-month tour of India in 1921 is fraught with tension. There is unrest and Perveen Mistry is in the thick of things. In her third outing, The Bombay Prince , (Penguin Random House) Sujatha Massey’s feisty heroine, Perveen Mistry, the only woman lawyer in Bombay, has a lot on her plate from riots to the death of an 18-year-old student, Freny Cuttingmaster, during the royal visit.

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The title, Massey says comes out of a sarcastic comment made by Perveen, who does not welcome the prince’s tour of India. “At the time he was Britain’s crown prince and she with many Bombay citizens was advocating for independence. On the morning of his arrival, Perveen says to Mustafa, who works in the law firm, that Edward is not the prince of Bombay. However, Bombay’s high society does treat Prince Edward with extreme reverence; hence the title.”

Truth of the matter

The 57-year-old British-American author says she learnt that the Prince of Wales’s visit, which was intended by the colonial government to build India’s loyalty to the Crown, instead inspired riots that resulted in hundreds of injuries, loss of life, considerable vandalism and theft. “I wanted to explore what happened during these riots, and how Perveen would have felt shocked and vulnerable in a way that she had never experienced before. She is a Parsi, and freedom minded. However, a belief by many at the time, that all Parsis and Anglo-Indians supported the Prince’s visit led to them being targeted. When a Parsi girl is killed during the riots, Perveen is intent on finding the truth.”

The book cover

The book cover

Research, Massey says, followed her formula for all her books; with lots of reading, phone and email interviews, and travel to India. “The British government’s India Office made public online, a detailed daily record of Prince Edward’s activities. A film group in the UK posted the old public relations films of the prince’s activities while in India, on YouTube. That gave me the framework for many events occurring in the novel. I travelled to Mumbai to fact check what I had and to gather more details in January 2020, when life was still normal and free.”

Massey visited the iconic Wilson College building, which inspired the physical setting of Woodburn College in the book. “A Parsi friend brought me to visit the historic Parsi colony where she lives, and I had the honour of speaking with an elder neighbour to learn more about women’s lives in the early 20th Century. I also had the good luck to meet with the historian Dinyar Patel, who had conducted interviews with citizens who experienced these riots. Writing about a time period almost exactly 100 years ago is wonderful because it is still possible to gather a lot of evidence.”

The drawback, Massey says, is many of the people involved in this era have passed away. “I ran my legal scenes by Mitra Sharafi, a historian of Indian law based at the University of Wisconsin, and the Mumbai solicitor Parinaz Madan, who happens to be married to Dinyar.”

Inspiring model

An interesting fact Massey learnt during her research was that Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a successful barrister working in Bombay at this time. “His residence in Malabar Hill had caught my eye a few years ago and was the model I had in mind for the Farid bungalow in A Murder on Malabar Hill ( the first Perveen Mistry novel). He pushed his way into this book as well, because he really did attend the Orient Club luncheon for the Prince of Wales.”

Jinnah, Massey says, was a nationalist politician who defended freedom fighters, but he also knew it was important to be in the room with the powers that be.

JP Singer, a newspaper reporter from San Francisco, who covers the Prince’s tour, is a fascinating character with singular views on the state-controlled media. “It astounded me to learn how many international press people assembled in Bombay to cover the prince’s arrival. Some of them were bold enough to report beyond the party line and mention the deaths in the riots.”

Those kinds of newsmen were the inspiration for the brash Singer, Massey says. “He is quite taken with Perveen and wants to report on what she is doing to uncover the truth about Freny’s death. I would love to see him again. Good characters are like chess pieces — some you throw into the game right away, and others are protected in the back row, reserved for important situations yet to come.”

Safe haven

When the unrest breaks out, Perveen stays at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Massey says she chose the stately hotel because the road to her home in Dadar was close to the Mill Area, where the initial violence broke out. “Her father and brother did not want to be caught on the road by a mob, so they decided to book a suite at the Taj. Also, this Indian-owned hotel that was attractive to Indians and Europeans made it a likely spot to run into Colin Sandringham, her British friend.”

Sandringham, an open-minded, intellectual ICS officer, who Perveen met on her last case, The Satapur Moonstone , appears as an unexpected member of the prince’s entourage. “A giant entourage travelled with the prince during different legs of his trip to India, so I took the liberty of adding Colin. His other connection to Bombay is through his activities as a member of what was then called the Royal Bombay Asiatic Society. I was happy to tour the Asiatic Society during my research trip and spend time in a dramatic, oval-shaped lecture hall, which I have used for the ending scene of the book.”

Confirming that Colin will be back in book four, Massey says, the book will delve into the deadly world of childbirth. “During Perveen’s era, more than half the babies born in Bombay died within their first year of life, and gynaecological ills were the chief cause of death. Birth control was against the law, as was abortion. Perveen gets involved with a group of women wanting to start a maternity hospital in a working class neighbourhood. It also brings me into Bombay’s historic Gujarati neighbourhoods of Kalbadevi and Ghatkopar. Perveen’s sister-in-law, Gulnaz, is a new mother, so her travails also play into the mystery.”

As far as cinema goes, Massey says A Murder on Malabar Hill is optioned to Village Road Show Entertainment in Hollywood, with Freida Pinto joining as an executive producer. “Freida will play one of the widows. I am an executive producer as well, and hope to be as involved as I can.”

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