Book Review: The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey
By Janet WebbJune 15, 2021
Perveen Mistry holds a unique status in 1920’s Bombay as India’s sole female solicitor. The title of Sujata Massey’s mystery, The Bombay Prince, refers to The Prince of Wales, son of King Edward VII and grandson of Queen Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India, who is about to embark on a tour of India. The four-month visit of the British heir apparent is not universally welcomed by the citizens of Bombay. Many Indians chafe under British colonial rule and yearn for its end. On July 1st, 1867, three British colonies merged to form the new, self-governed country of Canada. Why could India not follow a similar path?
Royal tours aside, a lawyer’s lot is paved with contracts. Mr. Shah is a client who wants to rent out his bungalow. Mr. Ahmad is a well-qualified potential tenant.
But suddenly, her client wanted an amendment prohibiting the butchering of meat. Mr. Ahmad had crossed that out and written in capital letters that his wife had the right to cut and cook whatever she pleased. He also insisted that Mr. Shah replace a dying mango tree in the garden.
What is behind these last-minute antics? “Perveen suspected that religious anxiety had infected her Parsi client and made the prospective renter react defensively.” Perveen subtly reminds Mr. Shah that “municipal taxes would rise in the new year,” causing him to reconsider his demands because an empty house won’t garner him a rent check. This dispute reminds readers that Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1995) is not culturally homogeneous. The predominant but not exclusive religious groups in the city include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Parsis, and Sikhs.
A young woman, Freny Cuttingmaster, comes to Perveen’s office to ask for a consultation, highly irregular. Mustafa, “the silver-haired giant who served as Mistry Law’s guard, butler, and receptionist,” tells Perveen that Freny was referred to Mistry Law by Alice Hobson-Jones, Perveen’s best friend, a Mathematics instructor at Woodburn College. The two women do a song and dance about how best Freny should address Perveen, the eighteen-year-old rejecting ‘Memsahib’ as too British and ‘ma’am,’ in Perveen’s opinion, skewing too old.
“If you’d like, you may call me Perveen-bai.”
Freny nodded. “Perveen-bai, I am representing Woodburn College’s Student Union. We are seeking a legal consultation.”
Activism was on an uptick throughout Bombay. In recent months the famous lawyer Mohandas Gandhi had been gaining adherents with his calls for protest against British rule. Perveen longed to assist freedom fighters, but she was a solicitor, so her work was mostly contracts. “I am honored you thought of Mistry Law. Would you like to tell me your concern?”
Freny looked intently at Perveen. “We want to know if we have the right to stay away from college without being punished.”
Perveen is puzzled and annoyed. Why would the student union be consulting a lawyer about something so trivial as students skipping class? Freny sets Perveen straight, saying the question is political. “We want to be absent from the college on the day the Prince of Wales enters Bombay. Did you know that Gandhiji has called a hartal?” A hartal is more than a boycott: it is a “concerted cessation of work and business especially as a protest against a political situation or an act of government.” The crux of the issue for Perveen is how to advise students who don’t wish to honor “the prince, yet not be punished by the authorities.” Unfortunately, feigning an illness to avoid the parade is not an option because telling the truth is a “cornerstone of the Parsi theology,” and a touchstone for Parsi Freny. Perveen has no good advice to give Freny, but she promises to look for college contracts that might offer an escape route in the three days before the prince’s arrival.
Perveen turns down her family’s invitation to join them to watch the prince’s triumphal entrance into Bombay. In all conscience, she cannot because she supports India’s eventual independence from Great Britain. At the last minute, worried about Freny’s ultimate decision to join (or not) her fellow students in the stands lining the prince’s route, Perveen rushes over to Woodburn College. Her friend Alice Hobson-Jones makes room for her, but Perveen can’t spot Freny, that is until she spots her prone body on the ground in the college’s garden. Freny must have fallen “from a second-floor gallery just as the prince’s grand procession” passed by the college. Perveen hopes that Freny is just stunned, that she isn’t dead, but when a constable turns over the body, Perveen knows that’s impossible: “The right underside of Freny’s face was smashed, with bits of bone protruding. She had fallen very hard indeed—or been struck.”
Feeling guilty for failing to have helped Freny in life, Perveen steps forward to assist Freny’s family in the fraught dealings of the coroner’s inquest. When Freny’s death is ruled a murder, Perveen knows she can’t rest until she sees justice done.
Her decision to help solve Freny’s murder puts Perveen’s Parsi family at risk because political tensions inexorably fuel religious tensions. Nevertheless, Perveen and her pappa Jamshedji, her legal mentor and the founder of the law firm, share a reverence for the rule of law and justice that supersedes their fears for their family’s safety. Besides, as Perveen said to Freny in their first and only meeting, “Bombay women are at least as strong as coconuts!” Perveen’s professional journey to be recognized as a full-fledged solicitor by the Bombay legal establishment—since the “Bombay High Court refused to recognize woman lawyers as advocates”—parallels her undeniable talent for detection. I look forward to a fourth Perveen Mistry novel for the young solicitor who undeniably lives in turbulent, interesting times and she’s right in the thick of it.