After solving the murder on Malabar Hill, the only female lawyer in 1921 Bombay, Perveen Mistry, goes to the princely state of Satapur to mediate between the dowager queen and her daughter-in-law, on the tricky matter of the crown prince’s education. With the king meeting an untimely death, Perveen has to negotiate palace intrigue, ancient curses and a jewel with history while advising the maharanis. The Satapur Moonstone (Penguin) is the sequel to Sujata Massey’s A Murder on Malabar Hill . talks of Perveen’s further adventures in an email interview. Excerpts.
When we spoke earlier for A Murder on Malabar Hill , Sujata spoke of the need to keep the main character single. Does the government agent, Colin Sandringham's presence indicate otherwise?
“When we consider the lives of India’s first two women lawyers, Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam, marital status had a big impact,” says the 55-year-old British-American author based in Baltimore, Maryland. “Cornelia, the lawyer who remained single, had a robust career as both solicitor and barrister that spanned over 30 years. Mithan retired as a barrister within a year of marriage. Why? Was it because of social pressure? Those real life outcomes make it logical for Perveen to remain single as long as she can. Can her social life be fun and rewarding without marriage, though? I absolutely think it can.”
The title brings memories of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, often described as the first detective novel, involving a precious stone stolen during the Siege of Seringapatam. “I first read The Moonstone when I was 12. My father gave me the book as a Christmas gift. He knew I had been reading Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle and thought another classic mystery with a link to India would be suitable. The Moonstone’s deeper theme of unjust theft from India was something that I didn’t focus on until an older age — and we need to remember that although it is called “moonstone” in that novel, it is actually a very huge diamond, not a semi-precious stone.”
Sujata says she decided to use the actual semiprecious moonstone for after learning it was one of India’s indigenous rocks. “A moonstone also has a mysterious, milky glow that makes it perfect as a missing jewel in a mystery.”
The author of the Rei Shimura series says she set the book in a princely state because almost half of the subcontinent was under royal command in the late British period. “The Indian landowners and nobles had a complicated relationship with the British government. The British offered them military protection as long as they didn’t advocate for freedom and cooperated with British regulations including the schooling and marital choices for the maharajas. Many royal women lived in purdah, and because they had the power to give birth to heirs, they were often at risk from jealous relatives who wanted to create new dynasties.
Perveen learns about these conditions when she goes to visit the princely state of Satapur, a fictitious place I’ve tucked in the Sahyadri Mountains not far from the real Lonavala and Khandala. I think Perveen could easily travel to other states in future books as well as interesting cities in British India.”
In A Murder on Malabar Hill, which won the Mary Higgins Clark Award, Perveen confronts a serious fear that stems from trauma in her past. Sujata says, “She is ultimately empowered to go full-steam-ahead in the law practice with her father, Jamshedji Mistry. She has so much more confidence. This makes her willing to travel for the assignment she is offered in The Satapur Moonstone , although it raises some concerns. She knows it could be a great way to secure a lot of future work from royal women in princely kingdoms, yet she has to balance this with the interests of her client, the British government. Can she represent a client like this when she longs for India to be independent? What does being a professional and an ethical person mean?”
Sujata says she has not conceived of the series with a finite number of books. “I would like to find out how long I enjoy writing about Perveen Mistry. Lots of plot ideas keep popping up, so I am sure that I will be busy for years to come.”
The humble poha has a starring role in the book. “I noticed poha on many breakfast menus in Maharashtra, and it is also a family favourite. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like poha. It looks innocent and plain and that makes it all the more suspicious to Perveen. The breakfast she eats at the palace: bread, eggs, fruit is a lot like a meal for a nervous traveller trying not to get sick.”
Like the earlier book, the clothes are exquisite whether the divided skirt Perveen wears to go riding or the gorgeous saris. “I collect art books and pamphlets about sari design and am happy to talk about the different weaves and draping styles, though I must confess I am all thumbs when it comes to putting a sari on myself. I particularly like the moment when Perveen arrives at the Circuit House, bathes by candlelight since there is no electricity, and then dresses in a sari of blue watered silk sari shot through with gold threads. It is subtle but appropriate for dinner. Or so she thinks!
Her dining companion has only made the effort of changing into a fresh shirt. Hasn’t everyone experienced a sartorial mismatch, and felt anxiety or irritation because of it?