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Murder in the middle of a royal tour

Mohammed Rayaan | Updated on July 16, 2021

Eye on the case: Perveen Mistry is aided in her fast-paced investigations by her father   -  ISTOCK.COM

A princely procession, a mysterious death — Sujata Massey’s third Perveen Mistry whodunnit has all the ingredients of a winner

* The novels are set in the days of the Raj, and The Bombay Prince presents a well-researched world of the British era

* Things take a turn when a Parsi student Freny Cuttingmaster, who had met Mistry days ago for legal counsel, is found dead

* Massey touches upon the freedom struggle, the class divide of the era, and the role of a real-life historical figure, who is key to the plot

*****

In The Bombay Prince, Sujata Massey’s latest novel featuring Perveen Mistry, the author deftly transports the reader to pre-independent India. Mistry — Massey’s intrepid investigator — is the first woman lawyer in colonial Bombay, and in the new novel, she is out to find out how Freny Cuttingmaster, a young Parsi woman, ended up dead.

The Bombay Prince / Sujata Massey / Penguin Random House / Fiction / ₹499

 

The Bombay Prince is the third novel from Massey’s Perveen Mistry series; The Widows of Malabar Hill and The Satapur Moonstone being the other two. All the novels are set in the days of the Raj, and with The Bombay Prince, Massey crafts yet another page-turning work of fiction rich in characterisation, and presents a well-researched world of the British era. Set in November 1921, the story begins with the arrival of Edward VIII, Prince of Wales and future ruler of India, in the city of Bombay for a four-month tour. His trip causes unrest in various parts of the city, and eventually leads to riots.

Things take a turn when Cuttingmaster, who had met Mistry days ago for legal counsel, is found dead just as the prince’s grand procession is passing by her college. Mistry quickly gets into the act, investigating the cause of her death, despite circumstantial evidence suggesting it might be a suicide.

Massey goes about immaculately setting up colonial-era Bombay. She credits multiple historians and academics in the acknowledgement section, which makes a reader realise that almost every essential aspect in the book is laced with elements of truth.

The author, in her acknowledgements, explains that she was “inspired by the 1921-22 tour of the Indian subcontinent by Prince Edward VIII”. “The prince’s daily record mentioned in this novel is based on British government records, and information about the days of the unrest following his procession came from newspapers of the era,” Massey notes. “Specific events happening at [the] fictitious Woodburn college and on the railway [station] are imagined,” she adds. Several scenes unfold in the Woodburn college, while a crucial plot point takes place by a railway station.

The historical setting is finely researched and the author subtly touches upon the freedom struggle, the class divide of the era, and even the role of a real-life historical figure, who is key to the plot.

Massey writes into the characters a fair amount of flaws and strengths, making them believable. Mistry is determined to find the answers behind Cuttingmaster’s death. Contrary to norms, she is gentle during her courtroom examinations, taking care to make a potential witness comfortable so that they share the truth and help her push forward her investigations. At the same time, Massey also makes her fiercely independent, a woman who can stand her ground among misogynistic men. She shares a brief romance with Colin Wythe Sandringham, an Englishman part of the prince’s entourage.

However, it is the warm relationship that Mistry shares with her father Jamshedji that stands apart. The father-daughter duo together run their legal business — Mistry Law. The workings of legal affairs nearly a century ago takes the reader back in time. Several scenes are set in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel too, and provide a mirror to the lives of the elite in colonial India.

Massey dwells on the social acceptance and norms prevalent at the time. For instance, Mistry is reluctant to meet Sandringham in public as she fears her father might disapprove of her meeting a man, that too an Englishman. Jamshedji is protective of his daughter but, at the same time, trusts her to do her work whenever she is investigating a legal aspect of the case. There is often a word of caution and advice from him as she goes about a case.

The Mistry family also has loyal aides who respect and love them as their own. Their butler Mustafa and driver Arman are always ready to perform any task without hesitation.

The first half of the book has Mistry dealing with the grief-stricken parents of Cuttingmaster. The novel picks in the later chapters — Order in the court and Coroner’s verdict — where the jury decides the cause of death. What follows next is a series of fast-paced investigations by Mistry with timely help from her father.

Apart from a warm portrayal of the father-daughter relationship, The Bombay Prince keenly depicts the life of the upper class Indians under British rule. Massey shows how different communities lived and worked a century ago, and also their religious beliefs. The Mistry and the Cuttingmaster family — both Parsis — express the importance of their faith, and the latter is portrayed diligently following the rituals during a period of mourning after the daughter’s death.

Another interesting character is the American journalist, JD Singer who plays a primal role in the story. Singer is a charismatic person who does whatever it takes to get answers for the reports he works on. Towards the end of the novel, Massey stitches together the loose ends, leading to a showdown at the most unexpected places, keeping the reader hooked.

Published on July 16, 2021

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