American author Sujata Massey was inspired by courageous and pioneering Indian female lawyers to create the fictional character of Perveen Mistry, the young solicitor featured in “The Satapur Moonstone,” an evocative and captivating mystery series set in 1920s India. She spoke with Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga.
Q: You grew up in the U.S. after being born in Britain to British and Indian parents, and you became a Baltimore newspaper reporter. How did you choose the India setting?
I had written historical novels set in India, spending years researching this period and falling in love with a lot of different aspects of the time. I was really impressed with how hard women were working both for their own liberation and for the country’s, how many were going to school and trying to get started in professions.
Q: What hurdles did women lawyers like Perveen face in the early 20th century?
The first hurdle was law school. A woman could not get a law degree in India. She could go to Oxford University on a scholarship or, if she had the funds, study civil law and do all the coursework to become a solicitor, who does work like contracts and wills. But she couldn’t become a barrister who can go into a courtroom and argue for a client in front of a judge. Then she had to find someone who’d hire her. In those days, only family members would want to have a woman in their law firm. Finally, she had to attract clients who’d feel that she could do the job.
Q: In the book, Perveen can go to places where male lawyers cannot due to the practice of purdah. What did that entail?
There were wealthy women who lived in seclusion, in a certain part of their houses, and only spoke to males who were relatives. Only women lawyers could go in and talk to them. That’s how [real-life pioneering Indian lawyer] Cornelia Sorabji became so busy, successful, and influential. She’d travel through the jungle in palanquins, on horseback, on elephants – the incredible travels that inspired Perveen’s journey in this book. It took time, it was hazardous, and there were often people lying in wait to kill her.
Q: How is Perveen’s family background important?
Perveen is born into a Zoroastrian family of Parsis, the Persian people who’d come to India hundreds of years before her time. They were the earliest group to encourage women to work. ... They saw the value of women being educated – they were pioneers.
Q: What influences Perveen to be outspoken?
The more education you have, the more freedom you have to express yourself. But even if she thinks, “This is ridiculous,” she doesn’t necessarily say that to a man who’s behaving in a ridiculous manner. If she does that, she won’t get anywhere. Instead, she has to be more subtle, managing to do something else without a direct confrontation. It’s like the Gandhian movement with its quiet restraint, a kind of soft power.
Q: What’s next for the series?
I’m writing the third book, which takes place in 1922, the same year as “The Satapur Moonstone.” The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, is on a four-month trip, and all kinds of real things happen. The day he sets foot in Bombay, riots broke out between Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis. ... They hoped his visit would calm down the independence movement, but it becomes more agitated. Overall, the book is about women’s rights in an educational setting during a volatile time.