Sujata Massey: The Mistress of Bhatia House

Perveen Mistry #4

The much anticipated return of Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry is well worth the wait.  It opens with this wonderful sentence: “Sisters will fight. It’s true whether they are raised together or meet as sisters-in-law in a joint family household.”  It sets the tone and theme for the novel, which is about the power of female connection.  And murder, of course.

Perveen the only female lawyer in 1920’s Bombay, lives with her family after a disastrous marriage.  As the book opens, she’s attending a fund-raising party for a new women’s hospital at Bhatia House. Her sister-in-law and former best friend, Gulnaz, has just given birth to the family’s first granddaughter, and she cannot attend.  In her stead, Perveen is bringing Gulnaz’s donation.

The party is a mixture of wealthy Indians as well as British, and the family that lives in Bhatia House is managed by two formidable women, sisters in law: Uma and Mangela.  Toward the end of the party, there’s an accident, and Uma’s young son catches on fire.  He’s saved by the quick action of his ayah, Sunanda, who literally throws herself between the boy and danger, getting badly burned herself.

There’s a doctor at the party who helps the family manage the burns, and she and Perveen strike up a friendship.  Massey is so good at dissecting and illuminating the many, many different slices of culture present in India.  Perveen and her family are Zoroastrians, and the doctor is Jewish.  Because both she and Perveen are both working in typically male professions they have a bond, one which serves them well throughout the story.

When Perveen is on an errand for her firm the next day, she sees Sunanda under arrest at the jail.  Perveen can’t simply stand by and she goes to court, though as a female, she’s not allowed to advocate.  Nevertheless, she gets Sunanda, who is accused of abortion, out on bail and takes her home, as one of her bail conditions is that she not return to Bhatia House.  And it turns out that despite Sunanda’s heroic action, she’s been fired; and not only that, but the family also withheld the necessary burn care from her, and she’s in a bad way.

Meanwhile, Gulnaz is returning home with her new baby, Khushy, and she’s has been prickly, difficult and over the top emotional.  It’s clear reading this with a 21st century eye that Gulnaz is probably suffering from post-partum depression, but at the time, all her of family thinks she’s merely overly emotional.

This is an excellent mystery, and there’s a death as the lynch pin, but the real crime is the accusation of Sunanda.  Her accuser is known to no one, and her employers are willing to believe a stranger.  Massey’s examination of the way women were treated – accused of a crime if they aborted a baby, the way they are not listened to, and the way the more powerful members of a family take away their agency, is the true theme of the novel.  True to the first sentence, it’s also look at the relationship between Perveen and Gulnaz; at the dynamic between the sisters in law at Bhatia House; and even at the way Sunanda is treated by her own sister-in-law.

Perveen is fighting with all of it – in a lady like and civilized manner, of course.  She will question powerful men as well as a system that imprisons women in their bodies, forcing them to have baby after baby.  It’s an incredibly timely topic.  The dynamic between the treatment of women and the skillful storytelling that holds the book together makes this a compelling read, one of the best books of the year.  This series has always been a standout, but this installment is one of the most powerful, addressing themes of women’s lives in a way Massey has always concerned herself with as a writer, from her Rei Shimura series through to this one.  This is a writer whose work I always anticipate with delight, and I am never disappointed. — Robin Agnew