Review 1869: The Widows of Malabar Hill

In 1920’s Bombay, Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in the city. She is working with her father at the Mistry law office when a question comes up about the trust for the three widows of Omar Farid. First, the family’s agent Mr. Mukri says the widows want to change the purpose of the trust from support of veterans to the establishment of a madrassa. Further, the wives are giving up their mahr (sort of a dowry) to the trust. That may not be allowed by law. But Perveen also notices that the signatures of two of the women appear to be the same. Since the women are living in purdah, Purveen talks her father into allowing her to interview the wives.

When Perveen visits the wives, she finds Mr. Mukri rude and uncooperative and only Sakina, the second wife, understands and agrees with the requested changes. Sakina is shocked to find out that Razia, the first wife, is the administrator of the trust. Razia is unaware that Mr. Mukri has filed for a change in the purpose of the trust, but she is clearly afraid of him. Perveen also finds out that the agent has not been paying the household’s bills and that the third wife, Mumtaz, is trying to hide a pregnancy from the rest of the household. Perveen believes Mukri is mishandling the estate’s funds.

This novel is being marketed as a mystery, but it is about 80 pages before Perveen goes to see the women and 120 before a murder is committed. That is mostly because Massey devotes about half the novel to Perveen’s personal life, particularly her brief marriage. It seems to me that she could have accomplished what she needed to do in a few paragraphs or a chapter, because we don’t invest much in this relationship. Perveen is afraid of her ex-husband at the beginning of the novel, but the reasons could be explained in a lot less space.

Massey does a good job of giving the feel of the indoor spaces and food and costume, but I didn’t get a good sense of what Bombay was like at this time, something that I look for in a novel set in an exotic location or other time. And, in fact, Perveen’s visit to Calcutta for the first time is an excellent opportunity to describe that city, but there is no description.

At first, too, I thought I was going to object to Perveen being too much out of her time, for I really dislike historical novels where the heroines behave more like they live in the present. This particularly bothered me in the section about Perveen’s romance, but as the novel continued, it stopped being an issue.

This is not a mystery, however. Perveen pokes around a bit, but the solution just depends on her being in the right place at the right time. It is her father who actually finds the most important clues. So, overall I was disappointed in this novel.

Related Posts

Murder in Old Bombay

Cromartie vs. the God Shiva

Nectar in a Sieve

Review 1842: #1954 Club! Nectar in a Sieve

I don’t usually post on Saturdays, but I had one more book that I read for the 1954 Club.

When I saw that Nectar in a Sieve qualified for the 1954 Club, I was excited to read this landmark novel. It depicts the life of poor Indian peasants, and as the Afterword of my Signet Classics edition states, nothing much has changed for them in the 80 years since it was written.

As the daughter of the village headman, Rukmani might have expected a more memorable wedding, but she is the youngest daughter, so no dowry was forthcoming and she is plain. So, Rukmani is married at the age of twelve to a poor rice farmer, Nathan, who does not even own his own land. But, she thinks as an old woman recollecting her life, her parents made a good choice, for Nathan was good and kind.

Rukmani remembers her life, a precarious one where they were never able to afford to buy the land, where one misfortune could mean disaster—and they had several.

Rukmani thinks things start to go wrong with the arrival of the tannery, which turns their village into a town and brings in many strangers. But one year of flood followed by one of drought cause starvation and worse problems when Rukmani and Nathan are middle-aged.

By coincidence, just before I read this novel, I read The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, about the life of Indian illegal immigrants in London. In all these years, nothing much seems to have changed except the ultimate outcome.

In some ways, Nectar in a Sieve is more like social reporting than a character- or plot-driven novel. The only character we really get to know is Rukmani herself. However, the novel is poetically written and tells a powerful story.

Related Posts

The Lowland

Sea of Poppies

The Lives of Others

Review 1823: Murder in Old Bombay

Nev March says she was inspired to write Murder in Old Bombay by Sherlock Holmes and Kipling’s Kim. Certainly I can see the influence of the Holmes novels, if not in the hero’s deductive processes then in the complicated plot and disguises. From Kim, I hoped for a more atmospheric novel.

Captain Jim Agnihotri has retired from the army and is in the hospital recovering from serious wounds when he reads about a murder case. Two Parsee women fell or were pushed from the university bell tower, and the man charged got off because it wasn’t clear whether it was suicide or murder. Also, two other men present on the scene could not be found. Jim decides to offer himself as a journalist and investigate the case.

Having been hired, Jim goes to interview Adi Framji, whose wife and cousin were the victims of the crime. As a Eurasian, Jim is not usually accepted into either British or Indian society, but the Framjis soon accept him as a friend. Although Parsee families don’t marry outside the Zoroastrian religion, he finds himself smitten by Diana, Adi’s sister returned from London.

Jim’s investigation at first doesn’t turn up much, but even though the break in continuity seemed odd, the novel gets more interesting when he takes on a mission for the army. Indeed, he gets the opportunity to travel a bit and don several disguises.

As far as the mystery goes, this novel seems to stumble along. Jim also makes some cognitive leaps that don’t seem warranted by what has come before. For example, early on Jim concludes that the two girls who fell from the tower were being blackmailed. This turns out to be true, but where did it come from? There is nothing that comes before it to lead him to that conclusion.

The adventure portion makes the novel perk up, but otherwise I felt the effort was a little lackluster for a historical novel. March doesn’t supply much background for the historical events, nor does the reader get much sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of Victorian India, which is one of the things that makes Kim so wonderful.

Finally, although Jim is a likable character and I also liked the Framjis, I wasn’t interested in the romantic plot.

Maybe I’m making this review sound a bit too negative. I enjoyed parts of the novel, but the mystery seemed all over the place and I wanted more descriptions—of rooms, the city, the dress, the food. I wanted to feel the atmosphere of 19th century India, as a historical novel should make me do.

Kim

Dark Road to Darjeeling

Arctic Summer

Review 1754: Narcopolis

The narrator of Narcopolis arrives in Bombay in the 1970’s or early 80’s after he’s been thrown out of the United States. He finds Rashid’s opium den, where he meets such characters as Dimple, a hijra, or transsexual woman, who prepares the opium and works in a nearby brothel; Rashid, who has the best opium in Bombay; and Rumi, a low-level criminal. The novel is made up of linked short stories that follow the various characters until returning to the narrator many years later.

Pimps, pushers, and junkies are not my favorite subject matter, and I would not normally choose this book to read, but it is part of my Booker prize project. By around page 50, when the narrator attends a ridiculous lecture by a poet/artist named Xavier, I realized I had no idea what was going on and almost quit reading. However, soon I was taken up by the much more interesting stories of Dimple and Mr. Lee.

I was jarred to find one Goodreads reviewer referring to this gritty book as nostalgia, considering it mostly deals with drug addiction and sexual exploitation. Still, by the end of the novel, which takes place closer to the present, things are so much worse that I got his point.

I felt that the characters’ speech, when philosophical, sounds like it comes out of a textbook, and in other moods is unrealistic in other ways. I also thought that there was no reason to subject readers to such things as Xavier’s speech, the entire plot of the book written by Mr. Lee’s father, most of the characters’ dreams (I hate reading about dreams in fiction), the long description of a new form of poetry, and so on.

Did I like this novel? Not very much.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Sea of Poppies

Arctic Summer

Review 1747: Cromartie vs. the God Shiva

In its Afterword, Rumer Godden calls Cromartie vs. the God Shiva a twin to Coromandel Sea Change. It is partially set in the same location, the Patna Hotel on the Coromandel Sea, and has some of the same characters. When I realized this, I was excited, because I loved that book.

Michael Dean is chosen by his law firm to represent the government of India against Mr. Cromartie, a Canadian art dealer who is alleged to have purchased a stolen statue of the God Shiva worth a quarter of a million dollars. The statue was purchased from him, but now he is suing for money, so the government has to prove it was stolen.

Michael travels to the hotel. The statue was originally found when the hotel was built, so the owner made a shrine for it in the hotel ballroom. A noted archaeologist, Dr. Ellen Webster, had examined it several years before and told Auntie Sanni, the hotel manager, that it was valuable. A few years later, she realized it had been substituted for a good fake. When Michael questions the employees about it, they are all oddly evasive, and Auntie Sanni advises him to leave it alone. Dr. Webster arrives with her yearly tour group, and Michael falls in love at first sight with her assistant, Artemis.

This novel is a peculiar mixture. It evokes the flavors and smells of the village as do most of Godden’s India-set novels, but it turns into more of a mystery story. I don’t think it is quite as successful as some of her others, although it was nice to return to the Coromandel Sea. I believe this is my last book in my project to read Rumer Godden’s India novels.

Related Posts

Coromandel Sea Change

The Lady and the Unicorn

The Peacock Spring

Review 1740: Premlata and the Festival of Lights

Premlata and the Festival of Lights is the first children’s book I’ve read in my mission to read all of Rumer Godden’s India novels.

Since seven-year-old Premlata’s Bapi died, her family is very poor. With all the village families preparing for Diwali, Premlata is shocked to find out that her mother has had to sell all their deepas, the little oil lamps that families put around their houses to help the goddess Kali battle the demons of darkness.

Premlata’s mother sends her up to the Big House to deliver some sweets to the housekeeper. While she is there, she goes to visit her friend Rajah the elephant and finds him being painted beautiful colors for the festival procession. This reminds her of the problem of the deepas, and she begins crying in front of Bijoy Rai, the kind owner of the Big House. Once she explains that her house will be the only dark one in the village for Diwali, Bijoy Rai gives her some money for her mother to buy deepas.

Premlata has a better idea, though. She will go to the town, three miles away, see Rajah in the procession, and buy the deepas herself.

This is a charming chapter book for children who are old enough to read. It introduces them to another culture and is a gentle story about good intentions gone slightly amiss. It includes a realistic adventure with elements of danger. I don’t know how easy it would be to find a copy, but I recommend it.

Related Posts

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Kingfishers Catch Fire

The River

Review 1704: The Peacock Spring

Una, who shows promise for studying mathematics at university, has only two more years to prepare, having fallen behind because of all her moves between different schools with her diplomat father. Then, just as she’s feeling she will stay at Cerne, her father suddenly summons her and her sister Hal to India. They are to have a governess.

Una is sorely disappointed at this behavior that is so unlike Edward. Then she meets the governess, Alix, a beautiful Eurasian who orders around the servants and calls her father Edward. Soon she figures out that Alix is woefully uneducated. She does not know the difference between mathematics and arithmetic, and her idea of studying literature is to look at pictures of works cut from a magazine, not to read the works themselves. It becomes clear to Una that the girls are in India to hide from society that Edward and Alix are lovers.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the house, the second gardener, Ravi, is an ex-university student and poet on the run from the law after a demonstration. When he realizes Una is struggling to teach herself calculus, he offers help. He cannot help her, but his friend Hem can. So, Una begins sneaking out to meet Hem and Ravi.

This novel was another stunner from Godden. It overloads the senses with sights and smells as Alix tries to hide her past and Una strays from her goals.

Related Posts

The Lady and the Unicorn

Kingfishers Catch Fire

Coromandel Sea Change

Review 1697: Black Narcissus

Best of Ten!

After reading Coromandel Sea Change, I decided to find more of Rumer Godden’s India novels and read them. Black Narcissus was the first (although I have already reviewed a few of the others), and I found it mysterious and haunting.

Sister Clodagh and a small group of Anglican nuns arrive at a palace above a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, hospital, and school. The abandoned palace once was the home of the General’s father’s harem. He first gave it to religious brothers for a boys’ school, but after only five months, they left with no explanation.

From the first, the place seems to affect the sisters oddly. Sister Clodagh finds herself dreaming about Ireland and Con, whom she thought would marry her long ago. Sister Philippa, the gardener, becomes involved with the flower garden, to the neglect of the vegetables and the laundry. Sister Honey becomes too involved with the children. Sister Ruth, always difficult, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, the General’s agent. The sisters occasionally begin to forget their devotions.

Mr. Dean has warned the sisters about possible cultural misunderstandings with the villagers, but although they sometimes make an attempt to understand the natives, mostly the sisters heedlessly continue on their agendas. The sense of foreboding grows.

This is an absolutely terrific novel, very atmospheric, in which the brooding mountain across from the convent becomes almost godlike, certainly a character. I was so rivetted, I stayed up late into the night until I finished it.

Kingfishers Catch Fire

The River

Coromandel Sea Change

Review 1694: The Lady and the Unicorn

The Anglo-Indian Lemarchant family lives in the annex of a crumbling mansion in Calcutta. Belle, the oldest daughter, is beautiful, fair, and charming, with the reputation of a saint but a character lacking in morals. She is determined to do whatever it takes to get rich, which, for her, means marrying the right man. Rosa, the second daughter, is fair and gentle. She tells lies when she is scared, so has a worse reputation than Belle even though she is much more moral. Blanche, the youngest, is dark in complexion and generally treated disdainfully because of it but is the most honest.

At a party, Rosa meets Stephen Bright, a British young man who treats her respectfully and seems different than the others. But he is new to India and doesn’t understand how he’s expected to behave in 1930’s India. While he is dating Rosa, he becomes interested in the old mansion, where they find evidence of French nobility having built it.

Out in the garden at times Rosa and then several other characters see a sobbing woman and a little dog. Others report seeing a carriage departing from the house. These appear to be ghosts.

This novel is an unusual case of a doomed romance and an ancient mystery. I liked it, but it seems more cynical than Godden’s other Indian novels, though they often have sad endings.

Related Posts

The River

Breakfast with the Nikolides

Kingfishers Catch Fire

Review 1675: Kingfishers Catch Fire

Best of Ten!

Before she is even eight years old, Teresa has learned to put her head down and cry when her mother has an idea. Sophie Barrington-Ward is feckless, naïve, doesn’t listen to anyone else, and only sees what she wants to see. Widowed and left relatively poor after paying off her husband’s debts, she has worked so hard at jobs she’s not qualified for that she gets sick. Recovering, she has an idea. The Kashmiri peasants are poor, but they are healthy and well-fed. Why not rent a house in the Kashmir countryside and live like a peasant?

Of course, she has no ability to live like a peasant and has no understanding of just how poor the villagers are. As she settles into her house in the high Himalayas, she doesn’t notice that the villagers are vying for opportunities to make money from her. She consistently overpays and doesn’t listen to the advice of her landlord or his caretaker, Nabir. More dangerously, she doesn’t realize that there are two feuding factions in the village, the Sheikhs and the Dārs.

Teresa knows that it is Nabir who keeps them safe, particularly herself and her little brother Moo. But Nabir has a pride and aloofness that makes him seem insolent. And he has people working against him, including Sultan, the incompetent house servant Sophie brought from the city. Over time, a dangerous situation evolves.

Like the other India-based novels by Godden I’ve been reading lately, Kingfishers Catch Fire is freighted with a love of this region that does not miss its cruelties. Its descriptions are lush. Its heroine is complex. At first frustrated by Sophie’s faults and her lack of understanding of her daughter, I eventually came to admire her. Although I thought Black Narcissus was wonderful (I haven’t reviewed it yet), I think this novel is even better.

The afterword notes that this novel is one of Godden’s mostly autobiographical, and it includes a short section of excerpts from Godden’s Kashmir diary.

The River

Breakfast with the Nikolides

Coromandel Sea Change