Book House

In this novel, Perveen Mistry, the only female lawyer in 1920s Bombay, investigates a case of palace intrigue

Business was a welcome prospect for a Bombay lawyer who was well known but not as busy as she’d like. In the ladies’ lounge, Perveen scrubbed the track’s dust from her face and hands and brushed out her hair before fixing it up again in a coronet. She left off the pith helmet she’d been wearing, although its absence revealed a bright-red line running straight across her forehead. Walking out to the veranda, she felt multiple pairs of English eyes on her. Was it because she’d been seen with Sir David, or was it the silly split skirt?
Sir David waved encouragingly at her, and this set off a chorus of whispers.

‘I’ve taken the liberty of ordering you breakfast,’ he said. ‘You go straight to work after this, don’t you?’

‘I try to open up the office before eight,’ she said, putting on her best business voice. ‘It’s the only time one can attack one’s papers without interruption.’
‘Yes. As I mentioned, I may have a good prospect for Mistry Law.’
She leaned forward so eagerly she almost knocked her empty teacup out of its saucer. ‘Does someone you know need a lawyer?’
A slender waiter in a crisp, high-necked jacket righted her cup and poured a golden stream of Darjeeling into it. Sir David smiled benevolently. ‘Yes. I do.’

She looked at him hard. Was he in trouble at work? ‘Remember that I’m a solicitor. The Bombay court does not yet allow women advocates to approach the bench, but my father can—’

‘That is irrelevant,’ he said, cutting off the rest of her explanation. ‘Have you heard of the Kolhapur Agency?’
She was surprised by the simple question. Spooning sugar into her cup, she said, ‘Certainly. It’s the branch of the civil service that oversees Kolhapur State and falls under the purview of Bombay Presidency.’
‘It’s a bit more than that,’ he said. ‘The Kolhapur Agency has authority over twenty-five princely and feudal states in western India. The agency’s officers are political agents and residents who maintain relationships between British India and these states.’
Perveen was embarrassed she hadn’t known how many states were overseen by the Kolhapur Agency. But why was he asking about it, anyway?
The young waiter came back with a plate of scrambled eggs, toast and kippers for each of them. The eggs looked fluffy, the toast appropriately buttered, but Perveen did not like kippers. She resolved to try one, out of courtesy to her host.
It was like that with the British. An Indian could not prosper without contact with them, but one did not have to become a Britisher in their habits. As she shook green chillies over her eggs, she considered the picture that Sir David was painting. Although the British government had power over approximately 61 per cent of the subcontinent, the rest of India was a patchwork of large and small states and landholdings ruled by Hindus, Muslims and a few Sikhs. In exchange for being exempted from British rule, many royals paid tribute to the British, most often in the form of cash and soldiers. And as Sir David indicated, the states still had to cooperate with the desires of the political agents.

Sir David slid one of the kippers into his mouth, chewed with relish and continued the conversation. ‘At the moment, the agency is challenged. They’ve sent out a request for help in finding a legal investigator to step in and assist with business in one of their northernmost states.’

‘How interesting,’ said Perveen, the wheels already turning as she thought about the suitable lawyers she might refer to Sir David. ‘Tell me more. How long has the position been open? And how much time will the job take?’
‘The matter came up at a meeting last week, and the others agreed with me that you are probably the only person in India who could do it.’
Perveen almost lost her grip on her teacup but steadied herself. The hell if she’d be the one to work for Britain, which had kept India under its elephant feet since the 1600s. But she had to be diplomatic. Carefully, she said, ‘I’m honoured that you’d consider me for a government position, but I’d never leave my father’s practice. He just promoted me to partner last month.’
‘Congratulations! But you do serve clients who are willing to pay a fair rate—isn’t that the reason to have a firm?’
Perveen nodded warily.
‘Rest assured that this is a one-off job—it will probably take a week, with a little more billing time afterwards when you’re back in Bombay writing the report.’ He paused. ‘Have you tried a kipper yet? They’re made from a local fish, not the usual Scottish herring.’
A tiny, bony local fish that she considered bait, not good eating. Reluctantly, she put it in her mouth. As she chewed the unpleasant fish, she thought.

Things weren’t especially busy at the office; she had a few contracts to finish, but the prospect of more than a week’s work for a prestigious employer would please her father, Jamshedji Mistry, who saw the British as allies, not adversaries. Still, the business was out of town, and he wouldn’t like that. Working some eggs over the top of the rest of the kippers, which she was determined to avoid, Perveen said, ‘Kolhapur is more than 300 miles from Bombay. Is that where I’d have to go?’

‘Not quite that far. Have you heard of Satapur?’
‘It’s a minuscule state somewhere in the Sahyadri mountains.’ Perveen remembered its shape, rather like a rabbit posed on its hind legs, from her school geography book. ‘I don’t know if I could point to it on a map or name its ruler.’
‘It’s just 40 square miles,’ he said. ‘And there isn’t a royal sitting on the gaddi at the moment. His Majesty Mahendra Rao had died two years ago from cholera. His son, Maharaja Jiva Rao, is just ten years old.’
Perveen tried to imagine the situation at hand. ‘So although Jiva Rao is already the maharaja in name, it will be at least eight years till he assumes power. Does his mother rule until then?’
‘Women don’t hold power in most princely states. Because Satapur’s ruler is underage, the state’s decisions are made by its prime minister and our political agent, who happens to reside at the circuit house on the border between Satapur and the hill station of Khandala.’

‘Running a princely state must be a challenge for a British political agent,’ Perveen said sceptically, ‘especially if he’s not even living in the palace.’

Sir David waved a dismissive hand. ‘A palace minister does the day-to-day, sending reports to Mr Sandringham on all that transpires. And the prime minister, Prince Swaroop of Satapur, is the maharaja’s uncle, so that’s cosy.’
Perveen took a bite of toast. Buttered toast was one thing the British did very well. ‘What can you tell me about the political agent?’
‘Colin Wythe Sandringham has been at the post for about ten months. He is responsible for the well-being of the royal children and the late maharaja’s widow.’
‘What children? You only mentioned Prince Jiva Rao.’
‘He has a little sister, but I don’t know her name.’
Perveen didn’t like the way he had almost forgotten about the princess, nor that he had labelled the young maharaja’s mother a widow, when she should have been called a queen. Pointedly, she asked, ‘What is the maharani’s given name?’
‘Mirabai.’ He pronounced the name slowly, in his Oxbridge accent. ‘At least she’s not alone—the late Maharaja Mahendra Rao’s mother, the dowager maharani, is still ruling the zenana. I don’t recall her name.’

Of course, she thought. Sir David was better than most English administrators—and he had certainly been respectful of her own professional accomplishments—but he seemed to share the common belief that the vast majority of Indian women were faceless, nameless and passive.

He sipped his tea. ‘I think it’s splendid the mother and daughter-in-law have each other for company. But according to Mr Sandringham, a bitter dispute has arisen between the two maharanis about the prince’s education.’
This was a common enough problem, regardless of whether one had royal blood. In Perveen’s own family, there had been disagreements about whether she should study law, as her father wished, or literature, which was her own choice. It wasn’t until she’d been out of school for years that she had realized practising law could bring her a lot more excitement in life than analysing novels.
Unaware of her thoughts, Sir David continued, ‘Maharaja Jiva Rao’s mother wishes him to attend Ludgrove, where several other Indian princes are studying. But the grandmother, who still sees herself as superior to her daughter-in-law, doesn’t want him to go.’
Perveen had finished everything except the kippers. She wanted something sweet to take the edge off. She signalled the waiter. ‘Have you any guavas?’
He grimaced. ‘No good ones today, memsahib.’

‘Very well. I’ll take another piece of toast.’ She turned back to Sir David. ‘Where in India is Prince Jiva Rao studying?’

‘In the palace. He receives lessons from the Indian tutor who taught the last two generations of maharajas.’
‘I suppose he could be a good teacher. Certainly an experienced one,’ Perveen said, imagining this man would be over sixty.
‘These are answers you could find out for us when you visit the palace. Mr Sandringham paid a call in September, but he was not admitted due to the maharanis’ custom of seclusion.’
‘Hindu maharanis often observe purdah,’ Perveen said. ‘If the agent is determined, he should return and ask to speak to each lady through a screen. That is common when purdah ladies are needed to testify before a court of law.’
‘Going back to try again has its problems. You see, Mr Sandringham is a cripple,’ Sir David said bluntly.
‘A cripple!’ Perveen’s eyes widened. She was quite surprised the British had placed someone with a disability in a position of great responsibility and dispatched him far into the countryside. He probably had a gigantic staff to assist him. How else could one manage?

‘Others in the Kolhapur Agency suggested sending him again; however, I don’t wish to compromise his health when the interview with purdah ladies could be accomplished with more ease by a lady lawyer.’

Sir David remembered what she’d done in Malabar Hill at the beginning of the year. She felt a rush of gratitude, knowing how easily things could have gone another way. Few lawyers could help women in seclusion, and she’d been involved in just such a case. Women who observed purdah could not meet with men outside of their immediate families. Nodding, she said, ‘You wish for me to get behind the curtain, interview both maharanis and report my opinion on the maharaja’s schooling.’

Excerpted with permission from The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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