Review Reviews

‘The Satapur Moonstone: Perveen Mistry Investigates’ by Sujata Massey: The case of the missing royals

Halfway into Sujata Massey’s second Perveen Mistry mystery, I couldn’t help thinking that the situation has great potential for the kind of saas-bahu conflict beloved of our television serials. Take a look: the maharaja of Satapur dies of cholera and his teenage son and heir soon follows in a hunting accident. The new king is a 10-year-old and the state is being governed by his uncle in consultation with the British agent, Colin Sandringham. The king’s mother and grandmother are fighting about how he should be educated. The former wants to send him to a school in England; the latter wants him to be taught in the palace itself.

As if this weren’t enough, you have the grand setting of a palace in the Sahyadri mountains surrounded by jungles, murky pasts, purdah, poisons and murder.... Mistry, who was introduced in A Murder on Malabar Hill, is taken out of her comfort zone in the city and dropped into a feudal set-up where what looks like a straightforward case of conflict resolution soon turns into power struggles and paternity issues.

Massey does a marvellous job of setting the stage in the first section. With a few deft touches, she paints a portrait of India in the 1920s, when the nationalist movement is still nascent, and gives us an idea of Mistry’s background, the constraints she’s working under, and her support for Gandhi’s activism versus the realisation that her father’s law firm needs the support of the British. Once the action moves to Satapur, there are vivid descriptions of the rugged mountains and thick jungles, animals and people, as Mistry talks to the two women and the various other players to broker peace in the palace.

Fleshed out

As Mistry unravels the truth of who was at the bottom of the deaths, a full pageant of well fleshed-out characters — Mistry and Sandringham; Vandana caught in her son’s nefarious plans; Mirabai and her children, Jiva Rao and Padmabai; Putlabai, the dowager queen; the arrogant Prince Swaroop; Aditya, the court buffoon; and Rama, Sandringham’s employee — hold centre stage and the reader is invested in them and the reasons behind their behaviour. At the palace, Mistry comes up against the caste system and the jostling for power not just among the royalty but also its trickle-down effect among the courtiers and servants.

The Satapur Moonstone: Perveen Mistry Investigates; Sujata Massey, Penguin Random House, ₹399

The Satapur Moonstone: Perveen Mistry Investigates; Sujata Massey, Penguin Random House, ₹399  

Apart from the external mess, Mistry has to deal with inner ones as well: her desire for an independent India has her lashing out occasionally at Sandringham as the representative of colonial power. She’s also attracted to him but she is separated from an abusive husband and, under Parsi law of the times, cannot get a divorce because “his abuse was not severe enough”. And then there’s social disapproval to contend with. At the end, Massey leaves one wondering if the two do in fact have a future together.

When writing about food, Massey evokes images with a few simple words. Take this example from the first chapter where Mistry is having breakfast with Sir David Hobson-Jones at the Royal Western India Turf Club. As he presses her to try a kipper, Massey writes that it is “A tiny bony local fish that she considered bait, not good eating.” You can almost see the wrinkled nose. Later there are descriptions of a “smothered chicken” that Rama makes, kande pohe at Vandana’s place, and a formal meal at the palace. There are also some sumptuous descriptions of clothes. Mistry’s saris seem positively drool-worthy and there’s a nice bit about differing views when the dowager maharani dismisses Mistry’s sari as “gaudy” because she’s a Parsi. “Gaudy? The colourful Shanghai-embroidered birds and vines on the lustrous sari were considered tasteful in Perveen’s community.”

Despite the quick pace and taut and crisp writing, the denouement comes as a surprise. I spent quite some time suspecting the wrong person. There are a couple of loose ends that seem to have been forgotten — the lost camera and the mysterious Roderick Ames are left hanging. And for someone who seems to be constantly worrying about what people will say and think about her, Mistry manages to move around quite freely and do stuff that most women in those times would not be allowed to.

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 3:29:14 AM |

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