Murder, she solved, in Mumbai
Three feisty women, from different eras of India's history, tackle criminals and patriarchy
If Muslim succession laws in colonial India don’t sound like gripping subjects for crime fiction, you need to have a go at Sujata Massey’s new novel, A Murder On Malabar Hill (Penguin Random House, Rs399). Set in the early decades of the 20th century, in the city once called Bombay, its smart storytelling transforms esoteric legal loopholes into compelling plot devices, a feat expected of the creator of the Rei Shimura mystery series. Read together with two recent thrillers set in contemporary Mumbai, Murder In Seven Acts: Lalli Mysteries by Kalpana Swaminathan (Speaking Tiger, Rs499), and Hush A Bye Baby by Deepanjana Pal (Juggernaut Books, Rs350), this triad provides a special insight into women’s history, and its influence on crime writing.
Perveen Mistry, Massey’s protagonist, is loosely modelled on Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to study law at Oxford and later to practise in India. A Murder On Malabar Hill is written in the mould of the classic locked-room sleuth—literally so, since the murder she helps solve takes place next to the zenana, the secluded living quarters of conservative Muslim women. As a solicitor at her father’s law firm, Perveen is involved in the misfortunes of the three widows of Mr Farid, her father’s late client, fortuitously. Aided by her razor-sharp deductive skills and quick thinking, she overcomes every obstacle—from the sneering condescension of men, British officials or Indian law-keepers, to the blight of a youthful marriage that continues to haunt her. Woven into this matrix of crime and justice is a social history of women’s rights. From the pittance inherited by widows to the problems posed by traditions like the purdah in police investigations, Massey’s novel combines keen detailing of historical fiction with the breezy pace of a whodunit.
Pal’s first novel, set in posh south Bombay, like Massey’s, draws us back into the grisly present. Dr Nandita Rai, beloved gynaecologist of the elite, is accused of running an illegal abortion racket at her clinic. But her motives go beyond simple megalomania, entangled as they are with her personal history and her pernicious sense of justice. In Reshma Gabuji, we have yet another unlikely investigator, though she is a member of the Mumbai police. Trying to compensate for her interviewing skills with an acute grasp of the internet, she is a misfit in the male bastion that guards the old order. Hush A Bye Baby is not premised on the typical chase-and-pursuit trope. From the start, we know the criminal—it’s her reason for committing foeticide that eludes us. The plot, held tightly together for the most part, unravels a bit in the end, but leaves us with the promise of a sequel.
Into the grisly heart of Mumbai we step again in Swaminathan’s latest collection of short stories. Lalli, retired police detective and aunt to Sita, who narrates her adventures, is one of the most endearing characters in Indian crime writing. Adept as much at making the best marmalade in the world as fixing the nastiest conspirators, she is India’s answer to Miss Marple, a woman with the sharpest pair of ears and eyes for miles. Having once wrestled with patriarchy, Lalli is a right matriarch in her current avatar, shaking up male egos in the corridors of Mumbai police.
Although Swaminathan has written a handful of novels with Lalli as the protagonist, she is as deft with the shorter form. The seven stories refer back to earlier mysteries Lalli has solved, but also work as stand-alone narratives. From a mysterious face haunting an elderly lady to a grisly book-burning ritual that dovetails into murder, the tales take us through the gamut of middle-class life: jealousy, avarice, serial killing, suicide. It’s for the last story Swaminathan saves her punch: a tribute to one of the greatest crime writers that will gladden the hearts of aficionados.