In “The Widows of Malabar Hill,” the first in a series and an international best-seller, author Sujata Massey introduced one of the first female lawyers in 1920s Mumbai. A Parsee (Zoroastrian) by birth, Perveen Mistry is entrusted with investigating the wills of several widows, which appear to be fake.
Now the Oxford-educated lawyer returns in a second, atmospheric novel titled “The Satapur Moonstone.” The year is 1922, pre-independence India, and the place is Satapur, a fictional principality. Only 40 square miles in size, it is in the beautiful Sahyadri Mountains. Although the British Raj rules much of the country, Satapur remains independent, except for the presence of the Kolhapur Agency, a branch of the British civil service which exercises authority over the internal affairs of several princely states, including that of Satapur.
And the situation at the Satapur palace is grim. The maharajah is dead. The dowager maharani and her daughter-in-law disagree over whether the young heir — Maharajah Jiva Rao, who is only 10 years old and will be sitting on the throne in eight years — should be educated locally or in England. The two royal ladies are in seclusion and will not deal with men. Perveen is thereby offered a short-term assignment by the agency as the “lady legal investigator” to settle their dispute.
At first, Perveen’s reaction to the offer is less than enthusiastic. “The hell if she’d be the one to work for Britain, which had kept India under its elephant feet since the 1600s.” But she reflects how much it’ll please her father, who considers the British allies. Ever the dutiful daughter, she reluctantly accepts the offer.
Perveen has misgivings about other things, such as riding a palanquin, the only way to reach the palace. “[H]er attention was drawn to eight men sitting in the grass around a rough-looking bamboo contraption: two poles with a four-foot-square box fixed between them. One side of the woven box was partially open for air, but that purpose was defeated by grimy beige curtains.”
In due time, she arrives at the palace, only to discover other serious complications, such as the death of maharajah’s older son in a hunting accident, as well as a suspected poisoning. She notices menacing — if only symbolic — suggestions in the lavish courtyard. “In the pond between the floating lotuses, two black swans made a lazy progression … (T)hey struck her as slightly ominous. Two black swans, just like there were two widows in the palaces.”
As if all this weren’t enough to keep her occupied, she finds herself developing an interest in Colin Sandringham, a Brit and a representative of the Kolhapur Agency.
Bright, determined Perveen plans to propose a British education for Jive Rao to his uncle Prince Swaroop, who acts as the prime minister. Her rationale: “(I)f the school was a good one, he’d receive a broad liberal education. In her case, it was after her studies in England that her dedication to the freedom movement had solidified.” However, she runs into opposition from Prince Swaroop, perhaps because he doesn’t desire Indian independence, which would end the princely states.
Worse yet, Perveen fears for her life. It appears that the palace has several kitchens, and depending on the where the meals come from, they could be laced with deadly poison. After a pet monkey dies, apparently from eating a discarded item from her own plate, Perveen faces a dilemma: “(H)ow could she abandon the maharajah? If someone wanted her dead, it probably meant he was at risk. She needed to stay long enough to deliver the school recommendation and convince the maharanis something was afoot within the palace.”
As always, the quality of Massey’s writing is of a high standard. She has done extensive research and filled the book with relevant religious and cultural details, sometimes to excess. The story struggles to maintain the freshness and authenticity of the first work in the series. But Perveen, whose aim is to help women and children, continues to engage us, thereby ensuring a long-running series.
“The Satapur Moonstone” by Sujata Massey, Soho Press, 346 pp., $26.95
Sujata Massey will discuss and sign her new book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, at the University Bookstore, Mill Creek Town Center, 15311 Main St., Mill Creek; ubookstore.com