The Satapur Moonstone is the second book in Sujata Massey’s mystery series about Perveen Mistry, a female lawyer in 1920s India. The first book, The Widows of Malabar Hill, introduces the reader to Perveen, a Parsi (Zoroastrians who had come to India from Persia centuries before), who works as a solicitor in her father’s law firm in Bombay, present-day Mumbai. Because of her gender, she cannot argue cases in court, but she can interview women who live in purdah—strict seclusion—and are not allowed to talk to men from outside their immediate family.
This book takes Perveen to the fictitious princely state of Satapur in western India. Sir David Hobson-Jones, a high-ranking official in the British colonial government and the father of Perveen’s friend Alice, asks Perveen to interview the mother and grandmother of the ten-year-old maharaja of Satapur. The two women disagree about the boy’s education: his traditionally-minded grandmother wants him to remain at the palace to be educated by his elderly tutor, while his more progressive mother wants him to be educated in England, as she was, and as Perveen was. The women live in purdah, and have refused to talk to the British government agent. Perveen, who supports Gandhi’s independence movement, is not happy about working for the British, but she eventually decides to take the case.
Before her journey to the royal palace, Perveen stays at the Circuit House, the home of the British agent, Colin Sandringham, a veteran of World War I, who had lost a leg after an encounter with a poisonous snake. There, she meets several visitors to the house, including Vandana, a woman who claims to be a cousin of the royal family of Satapur, and Yazad, her Parsi businessman husband. At that time, it was very unusual for a Hindu to be married to a Parsi. Vandana gives Perveen a moonstone pendant to give to the dowager maharani.
Perveen’s journey through the jungle by palanquin is a difficult and dangerous one, since the area is full of tigers, leopards, and poisonous snakes, and it is the end of monsoon season. When the palanquin breaks, Perveen is forced to walk through the downpour, and when she arrives at the palace, the two maharanis refuse to see her because she’s covered by mud. Only the moonstone pendant gains her admittance to the palace. The maharanis, however, especially the dowager, seem hostile to her, and they claim never to have heard of Vandana, the supposed royal cousin who gave Perveen the moonstone. The dowager maharani says the moonstone was hers all along, and is suspicious of how Perveen obtained it. The only people in the palace who show Perveen any kindness are the younger maharani’s maid and the court jester.
Soon Perveen discovers a web of intrigue surrounding the young maharaja, Jiva Rao. His father and older brother have both died recently, within a year of each other, his father in a cholera epidemic and his brother supposedly in a hunting accident. The servants speak of a curse on the royal family. Jiva Rao’s mother is afraid someone is trying to poison her son, and these suspicions are confirmed when a poisoning attempt on Perveen results in the death of the jester’s pet monkey. Perveen soon realizes that Jiva Rao’s brother’s death was no accident, and that the young maharaja is in great danger. Who, among the royal family and the palace staff, is a murderer? And will Jiva Rao survive to adulthood, as his older brother did not?
Massey gives the reader wonderful details about the life of a royal household in 1920s India, and about the various races, religions, castes, and classes that made up Indian society in the early 20th century. Perveen develops feelings for the British agent, Colin Sandringham, but it seems impossible for them to have a future together. Not only is Perveen, a supporter of Indian independence, reluctant to get involved with an Englishman, but her complicated marital status, as detailed in the first book, prevents her from remarrying. She was able to obtain a legal separation from her abusive husband but, under Parsi law, a woman would have to have lost an eye or a limb in order to claim abuse as grounds for a divorce. So Perveen is still legally married, even though she lives far away from her husband and hasn’t seen him in years. It will be interesting to see how her relationship with Colin develops in the next book in the series, The Bombay Prince, which has just been published.
Perveen is a great character: strong, intelligent, and a keen observer. She is inspired by an actual female lawyer in colonial India, Cornelia Sorabji, who was active in the 1890s. Sorabji is mentioned in another recent mystery set in colonial India, Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March, where she is described as a friend of the heroine. I also love Massey’s descriptions of food from various Indian cuisines. Perveen is not a cook, but she appreciates good food, and the details of the meals made me hungry for Indian food. I highly recommend this book. I suggest that you start this series with The Widows of Malabar Hill, especially for the background on Perveen’s life, education, and marriage, but The Satapur Moonstone stands on its own.