A STRANGER’S GAZE
Bombay, February 1921
On the morning Perveen saw the stranger, they’d almost collided. Perveen had come upon him half-hidden in the portico entrance to Mistry House. The unshaven, middle-aged man appeared as if he’d slept for several days and nights in his broadcloth shirt and the grimy cotton dhoti that hung in a thousand creases from his waist to his ankles. His small, squinting eyes were tired, and he exuded a rank odor of sweat mixed with betel nut.
A visitor to Mistry Law this early was rare. The firm was located in Fort, Bombay’s first settlement. Although the old wall had been taken down, the district was still a fortress of law and banking, with most openings between nine and ten.
Assuming the man was a sad-sack client, Perveen glanced down, not wanting him to feel overly scrutinized. The idea of a woman solicitor was a shock to many. But when Perveen glanced down, she was disconcerted to see the man wasn’t poor at all. His thin legs were covered by black stockings, and his feet were laced into scuffed black leather brogues.
The only place men wore British shoes and stockings with their dhotis was Calcutta, about twelve hundred miles away. Calcutta: the city that would always remind her of Cyrus.
As Perveen looked up, her alarm must have revealed itself. The man scuffled backward.
“Just a minute! Are you seeking Mistry Law?” she called as he rushed across the street.
Feeling perplexed, Perveen rapped on the door, which was opened moments later by Mustafa, the longtime butler in charge of Mistry House. The elderly man touched his heart and forehead in greeting before taking the tiffin box she’d brought with the day’s lunch. “Adab, Perveen-memsahib,” he said. “And where is your honorable father this morning?”
“He’s got Jayanth’s trial at the High Court. Mustafa, did you know someone was waiting in our doorway?”
He looked past her into the now-empty portico. “No. Where has he gone?”
“Across the street—he’s the man wearing the dhoti.” Perveen saw that the man was now standing in the shadow of a building.
Mustafa squinted. “Although dirty, he isn’t a beggar. Not with shoes.”
“Shoes and stockings,” Perveen pointed out.
“Had he knocked, I would have told him to come after ten. You are too busy first thing in the morning for such strangers—although I saw no appointments in the book today?”
Perveen noted the worry in his voice. Mustafa knew that it was a struggle for her to attract clients. “I didn’t book any appointments today because an old friend is sailing in from England. I’ll meet her when she arrives.”
Perveen smiled. “You must have checked today’s paper for the listing.”
The grizzled old man tilted his head downward, accepting the praise. “Yes, indeed. I’ll inform you when the London is unloading. And tell me, will your English friend come to Mistry House? I could prepare a small tea.”
“I think Alice will go to her parents’ home in Malabar Hill first—but perhaps she’ll visit soon.” Perveen surveyed the marble foyer, which was softly lit by lamps in gilded sconces. She would relish showing the Bombay Gothic building to her friend, Alice Hobson-Jones. The twenty-foot ceilings were a design feature of which Abbas Kayam Mistry, her late grandfather, had been especially proud. It always seemed as if her grandfather were watching from the long portrait guarding the entryway. His eyes, as inky black as his flat-topped fetah, were all knowing but not warm.
“I’ve got a load of papers to work through upstairs. I hope Pappa’s back for lunch because I’ve brought a very good one today.”
“He must win at court, Insha’Allah,” Mustafa said piously, “or he won’t have an appetite.”
“He loses very rarely!” Perveen said, although that morning’s case would be a hard one. Both she and Jamshedji had been quiet in the car coming in: he looking over his notes, she gazing out the window, thinking of their young client in jail a few miles away, wondering if this would be the day he was freed.
“Your father wins with his God-given ability to know the thoughts behind people’s faces,” Mustafa told her. “Mistry-sahib can read the judge’s face like a newspaper.”
Perveen sighed, wishing she had the same talent. She had no idea if the stranger was a lost soul or harbinger of serious trouble.
Putting the awkward incident aside, she trudged upstairs to address a half-done property contract on her side of the big mahogany partners’ desk. Legal paperwork was sometimes numbing, but the subtlety of one word could mean the difference between a client’s success and his ruin. Three years of reading law had built her understanding, but a half year working under her father had taught her to inspect each line backward and forward.
As the morning grew sunnier, she switched on the small electric fan that sat in a central window. Mistry House had been the first building on the block to pay for electric service, and due to its high cost, she was supposed to use it sparingly.
Perveen glanced out the window and down to the street. Fort’s twenty square miles were once the East India Company’s original fortified settlement. Now the district was known for the High Court and the many law offices around it. Nestled alongside the British and Hindu and Muslim law offices were a significant number owned by members of her own religious community, the Indian-born Zoroastrians. Although Parsis accounted for just 6 percent of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they constituted one-third of its lawyers.
Iranis—the Zoroastrian immigrants who had come from the nineteenth century onward—prided themselves on running superlative bakeries and cafés serving cuisine influenced by their ancient homeland of Persia. Such was Yazdani’s, the bakery-café across the street. The shop drew more than two hundred customers every day. This morning, the customers going in and out were working their way around a solitary obstacle.
It was the Bengali stranger. He’d left the place where she’d seen him earlier and set himself up in the shadow of the restaurant’s awning. This allowed him to face Mistry House without roasting in the sun.
Perveen felt a surge of apprehension and then reminded herself that she couldn’t be seen inside the second floor of Mistry House. From her perch, she had a bird’s-eye view.
In a corner of the office, a tall Godrej cabinet was Perveen’s alone. It held umbrellas, extra clothing, and the Bombay Samachar article touting her as Bombay’s first woman solicitor. She’d wanted to frame the news story and hang it on the downstairs wall along with Jamshedji Mistry’s many accolades. Her father had thought it too much to throw in the faces of clients who needed a gentle introduction to the prospect of female representation.
Perveen rummaged in the cabinet until she found her mother-of-pearl opera glasses. Back at the window, she adjusted the focus until the man’s sinister face appeared close up. He did not look like anyone she’d ever seen in Fort; nor could she remember seeing him in Calcutta.
Perveen laid down the opera glasses and turned to unopened letters from the previous day. A thick envelope engraved with a return address 22 Sea View Road topped the stack. An existing client was a priority. This client, Mr. Omar Farid, was a textile-mill owner who had succumbed to stomach cancer two months previously.
Perveen read the letter from the appointed estate trustee, Faisal Mukri. Mr. Mukri wanted her to make a change that would disrupt the estate settlement on which she’d been working. Mr. Farid had three widows, all whom still lived together in his house, and a total of four children—a humble number of offspring for a polygynist, according to Jamshedji.
Mr. Mukri had written that all the widows wanted to give up their assets as donations to the family’s wakf, a charitable trust that provided funds each year to the needy while paying a dividend to specified relatives. While a man or woman certainly could donate wherever he or she desired, wakfs were assiduously monitored by the government in order to prevent fraud, and a sudden infusion of money might be cause for scrutiny. Perveen decided to speak with her father before responding to Mr. Mukri.
Perveen placed the offending letter on Jamshedji’s side of the desk as Mustafa came in with a small silver tray holding a cup of tea with two Brittania biscuits perched jauntily on the saucer. After a tiny sip of the hot, milky brew, she asked Mustafa, “Have you been out to the street?”
“I haven’t. Why?”
She couldn’t express her deep-seated worry, so she only said, “The man who was blocking the doorway has stationed himself across the street.”
“Lurking on Bruce Street!” From Mustafa’s grim expression, she thought he looked ready to grab his old Punjabi regiment rifle that he kept in a kitchen cabinet. “Shall I toss him to the Esplanade?”
“There’s probably no reason to. But if you want a look at him, try these.” Perveen went to the window, where she picked up the opera glasses. It took her a few minutes to show the elderly man how to adjust the lenses to his needs.
“Ay, such magical spectacles! One can see all over with these!” “Aim toward Yazdani’s. Do you see him?”
“The man in the white dhoti.” Mustafa sighed. “Now I’m remembering he was nearby when I went outside to buy milk.”
“How early was that?”
“Usual time—twenty, thirty minutes before your arrival.”
This meant the man had been staking out their building for three hours straight.
Legally, he had the right to stand where he wanted. But Bruce Street was Perveen’s second home, and she felt anxious to know for whom the out-of-towner was waiting. Trying to sound matter-of-fact, she said, “I’ll walk over and ask why he’s there.”
Mustafa put down the glasses and looked at her with alarm. “You are a young lady alone. I should be the one to send that badmash packing.”
Perveen regretted pulling Mustafa into her worries. “Please stay. There are so many people around that nothing could happen.”
Still grumbling about danger to young ladies, Mustafa followed her downstairs. He opened the heavy door with great ceremony. Scowling dramatically, he remained on the marble step after she went out.
A bullock cart rolled past, and Perveen took advantage of its cover to cross the street unnoticed. As she came up in front of the Bengali, he acknowledged her arrival with a sharp upward movement of his face. Then he pivoted away, as if meaning to hide himself.
“Good day to you, sahib. Do you work nearby?” Perveen asked politely in Hindi.
“Nah-ah-ah!” his answer came in the form of a raspy cough. “Sahib, are you waiting for someone on Bruce Street?”
“Nah!” He responded fast this time and glared at her with his bloodshot eyes.
Striving to keep her voice steady, she spoke again: “Do you know Cyrus Sodawalla?”
His mouth opened, revealing crooked, paan-stained teeth. He stood still for a moment—and then he ran.
Perveen stared after him in dismay. She’d hoped he’d say no. She had anticipated a flat denial, not a departure.
“Huzzah!” Mustafa was waving his arms side to side, as if she’d bowled a perfect cricket score.
Perveen felt too shaken to return to Mustafa. She waved back at him and decided to venture inside Yazdani’s.
Lily Yazdani was working behind the counter. The fourteen-yearold’s long hair was tied up with a traditional mathabana cloth, and she wore a snowy apron over a pretty yellow sari. She beamed at the appearance of Perveen.
“Kem cho, Perveen!” Lily called out a greeting in Gujarati.
“Good morning to you, Lily! And why aren’t you in school?”
“A water pipe burst yesterday, so it’s closed.” Lily drew the corners of her lips down in an exaggerated frown. “I’m missing two tests.”
Perveen winced. “I hope Mistry Construction isn’t at fault. I believe the company built your school.”
“Who cares about the pipe? I’d rather be here baking cakes with my pappa.”
Perveen was sorry to hear this. She had a nagging anxiety that Lily would leave high school too early.
Firoze Yazdani emerged from the kitchen, his round face damp from heat. Wiping floury hands on his apron, he said, “What is your pleasure today, my dear Perveen? The dahitan were fried an hour ago and are soaking in sweet rose syrup. And of course, there are the cashew and almond fudges, and the pudding and custard cups. ”
Because of her inward agitation, Perveen didn’t think she could force anything sweet down her throat without gagging. At the same time, she couldn’t walk away without a purchase. “I’m welcoming an old friend from England at Ballard Pier later on today, so I’d like you to pack me a small box of your prettiest dahitan.”
“Most beautiful and sweet. Just like you!” Firoze’s wide grin split his face like a cracked persimmon.
“By the way—did you serve a fellow from outside Bombay this morning?”
Firoze looked puzzled, but Lily spoke up. “We had a dark and grumpy customer with a funny accent. He bought a date-nut cake and some almond fudge. I told him he could sit at a table, but he went outside.”
“He stayed outside for a few hours,” Perveen said. “I asked him
something, and he ran away as if I were a nasty British policeman!”
“Probably he arrived on the overnight train because he seemed quite tired,” Lily reflected. “He asked in the funniest accent what time law offices opened up in this area. I said nine o’clock for most firms and half nine if it’s the Mistrys.”
“What are you doing giving out such information about our esteemed neighbors?” Firoze wagged a reproving finger at his daughter.
Firoze knew things about Perveen that he’d blessedly never disclosed. She could have said the name Cyrus to him, and his eyes would have flared with recognition. But she would not parade her past mistakes in front of his impressionable daughter. “That accent is a Bengali one. Now that Lily’s described him, do you recall him?” she asked him.
The baker shook his head. “My cardamom dough needed attention, so I was in back. It’s good that you told off that velgard!”
“A wise woman can catch trouble before it starts,” Lily said as she tied a fine bow around the box of sweets. “Pappa, would you let me run your business later on, just as Mistry-sahib is doing with Perveen?”
“My father has hardly done that! He’ll work for many more years, and I still must prove my worth.” Perveen spoke sincerely; it was a heavy responsibility to be the only woman solicitor in Bombay. She couldn’t bring shame on Jamshedji Mistry. This was why the stranger’s presence bothered her—and the reason she wasn’t going to tell her father about it.