Sometimes, the most intriguing fiction has its basis in fact. Perveen Mistry, the smart heroine of Sujata Massey’s popular mystery series set in 1920s Bombay (now Mumbai), has her roots in an actual person: Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), who studied law at the University of Oxford and became India’s first female attorney.
For Massey, born in England to parents from India and Germany and raised in the U.S., discovering Sorabji’s story was an accidental inspiration. “I had found an article in an Indian newspaper about her,” Massey said, in a telephone interview earlier this month from her Baltimore home. The author was then doing research for a different book, set in 1930s Bengal, “just trying to get a sense of what women were and weren’t doing at that time in India. I remember being very surprised and very intrigued that there was a woman lawyer who started working in the 1890s.”
It wasn’t relevant to the book she was working on at the time, so she set the article aside. Years later, Massey said, she was thinking about writing a mystery series set in early-20th-century India. “I wanted to have a female sleuth who had a job that was actually possible at the time, and I remembered that woman lawyer.” She did more research, on Sorabji and on Mithan Tata Lam, who was the first woman admitted to the Bombay Bar in 1923, “looking at what their backgrounds were that gave them that extraordinary push to do the impossible and become the first woman lawyers in a man’s world.”
From these inspiring real-life women came the fictional Perveen, a young woman from a well-off Parsi family who, like Sorabji, left her native India to study at Oxford and then returned home. She’s the central character in the series that begins with the 2018 novel “The Widows of Malabar Hill” — the current selection of Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club — and is a fascinating mixture of privilege and powerlessness.
On initial glance, Perveen seems to have a remarkably charmed life for a woman in the 1920s; working in her father’s law offices as his trusted associate. But, Massey points out, “She’s powerless to find a job that is not with a family member, because people didn’t want to hire women lawyers.” She’s also powerless against family law, “set up by men in her own religious tradition, and by the British,” Massey said. Much of “The Widows of Malabar Hill” deals with women facing discrimination in local law: both Perveen herself, as she struggles to remove herself from a disastrous marriage, and her clients, the three polygamous widows of a wealthy mill owner.
Though this is Massey’s first novel featuring Perveen, it’s not the first appearance of the character: While waiting to see if her publisher was interested in the Perveen series, Massey decided to write a backstory adventure about the character. “I wanted to understand more about Perveen before I actually wrote a novel about her,” said Massey. “It was sort of like a writer’s exercise.”
Appearing in Massey’s 2015 collection “India Gray,” the first Perveen Mistry story followed the character’s years at Oxford, where she became involved in solving a crime with her English best friend, Alice Hobson-Jones (who also figures in “The Widows of Malabar Hill”). Massey had recently seen a film about Vera Brittain and read her 1933 memoir, “Testament of Youth,” about her days as a nurse and activist during and after the First World War. Brittain was also an Oxford alumna, and Massey was intrigued by her story and inspired by “the lives of women at these colleges, so chaperoned.”
Writing a novel fully set in India, however, meant a great deal more research for Massey, who had visited the country since childhood but didn’t grow up there. Upon first seeing Mumbai in 2009, “I just fell in love with the city,” she said, and wanted to capture it in a book. It is, she said, a city full of historic preservation, and she spent time exploring its streets and taking careful notes and photographs of what she saw. The widows’ bungalow, for example, was inspired by driving around Malabar Hill (a real, upscale neighborhood in south Mumbai) and seeing bungalows from the period that still existed.
A former journalist, Massey has been writing novels since 1997, when she was inspired to begin writing her Rei Shimura mystery series, set in contemporary Japan. Massey was then living outside of Tokyo, while her husband was serving as a Navy doctor and frequently away at sea. With time on her hands, “I thought, this is a really good time to try something!” she remembered. That novel, “The Salaryman’s Wife,” won the Agatha Award (named for Agatha Christie) for best first novel, and was nominated for several other major awards.
That series is now on pause after 11 books, while Massey enjoys immersing herself in 1920s India. The second Perveen Mistry novel, “The Satapur Moonstone,” was published last year, and Massey is currently in the editing/rewriting process for the third, “Prince of Bombay.” “This novel is about Perveen getting involved in a sensitive situation when the Prince of Wales visits Bombay in November 1921, which is something that he actually did do,” she said.
Between research, writing and rewriting, each novel takes a considerable amount of time. “It’s a job that’s never done, you never have that feeling of being done at the end of the day,” she said. “But I really am so grateful to have it, to have a job where you live in your imagination. It’s just such a joy.”
Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club will discuss “The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey on Wednesday, July 29, at noon at seattletimes.com/books.