Perveen Mistry liked the Fort best in the morning.
The air was still cool and fresh, the sidewalks were uncluttered, and she could carry the hope within her that the day would prove peaceful. Of course, business hours would bring heat of all sorts to Bombay’s first woman lawyer—but the start of the morning was always a time of comfortable routine.
This Thursday morning was different.
Perveen had arrived at her father’s law office at 22 Bruce Street over an hour earlier. She’d moved from drinking her first cup of Darjeeling to poring over contracts and back to drinking more tea. Still, the stranger idled across the street, in the shadow of Sassanian’s, his purpose unknown.
Perveen had first noticed the fellow when she’d almost bumped into him half-hidden in the doorway of their neighbor’s bakery-café. The unshaven, middle-aged man wore a wrinkled English broadcloth shirt, and his lower half was covered by a white cotton dhoti draped in the Bengali fashion. His small, squinting eyes looked tired, and he exuded a rank odor of sweat, mixed with chewed betel-nut.
Perveen knew the Fort was filled with all kinds. Its twenty square miles were once the East India Company’s original fortified settlement; now it was best known for the High Court and many law offices around. Nestled alongside the British and Hindus and Muslim law offices were a significant number owned by members of her own religious community, the Indian-born Zoroastrians. Although Parsi were just six percent of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they comprised one-third of its lawyers.
Probably, the tired, disheveled individual was waiting to meet his lawyer before appearing in court. Imagining the man in the throes of worry and despair, Perveen glanced down to avoid embarrassing him with a direct stare. Doing so, she had a surprise. The man wore very proper polished black leather lace-up brogues and black stockings.
Perveen’s stomach clutched. The only men who wore put together clothing and shoes like this were from Calcutta, about twelve hundred miles away. In fact, she hadn’t seen this sartorial combination since she’d left West Bengal’s capital in 1917.
Please, God. Hurrying on, she made a quick, silent prayer to Ahura Mazda. Send him away.
The man was still watching as she knocked on the front door to Mistry House. Although Perveen kept her own copies of the keys in her purse, she was careful not to usurp Mustafa’s authority. He’d been locking and unlocking the building’s heavy teak door for much longer than her twenty-three years.
The watchman took the two brass tiffin boxes she carried, warm and savory-smelling with lunch from home. “A good morning to you, Perveen-didi. But where is your honorable father?”
Perveen saw with the relief that the stranger had moved from his place and was crossing the street. “Already at court. How are you this morning?”
“Quite well, inshallah. I slept most of the night, for a change.”
Perveen surveyed the marble foyer softly lit by gas lamps set in gilded sconces. The space was cool because of its twenty foot-ceilings: a design feature of which Abbas Kayam Mistry, her late grandfather, had been especially proud. Entering into the subdued elegance of Mistry House, she always felt like Grandfather Mistry was watching from the ebony-framed, eight-foot-high oil portrait placed in full view of the entryway. His eyes, as inky black as his flat-topped fetah, were all-knowing, but not warm.
“And who will be coming today?” Mustafa continued. He was loath to admit anyone without an appointment.
“I didn’t book any appointments, because my old friend’s sailing into port from England. I have to meet her whenever she arrives.”
“Yes—you must know the weekly ships’ schedules by heart. I’ll work on a contract and some other pending papers until she comes in. Hopefully Mistry-sahib will return by lunch, because I’ve brought a good one, today. Let’s hope he wins—otherwise he won’t eat much.”
“Inshallah,” Mustafa said. “Your father must eat.”
The second-floor grand salon felt pleasantly cool as Perveen settled down with a half-written real estate contract. But as the sun rose and the coolness wore off, she switched on the small fan that sat in a central window. It was when she paused at this window that she saw the stranger was still outside.
After she finished the contract, she stood for a stretch and a second glance out the window. At nine-thirty, he was still standing near Sassanian’s, although he now held small clay cup of chai. Finishing the dregs, he threw the cup in a lazy arc, watching it smash against the curb.
He’d been waiting for more than an hour-and-forty minutes. This was absolutely odd for a neighborhood flowing with so many busy people it sometimes seemed the streets themselves were moving. She had to address the thought she’d been trying to suppress.
A steel Godrej cabinet in the office corner was Perveen’s alone. It held umbrellas and parasols, extra clothing, novels she’d rather her mother didn’t see, a battery torch, and a few other useful personal items. She rummaged until she found her mother-of-pearl handled opera glasses. The last time she’d used them was for a comedy show at the Parsi theatre. She’d laughed her head off while looking through those glasses.
They worked just as well when she was anxious. At the window, she adjusted the focus until the Bengali man’s gloomy face appeared in close-up. Did she know him? Had she ever seen him before?
She didn’t think she recognized him. But perhaps she wasn’t the one whom he sought. Every time someone walked around the corner, the Bengali’s head turned. Still, he did not follow anyone. The stranger lounged against Sassanian’s as if fatigued, but kept a resentful eye on the street.
Feeling uneasy, Perveen returned to a stack of letters from the previous day. Her interest was caught by an envelope with a recognizable return address on Malabar Hill.
22 Seaview Road was the home of one of her father’s longtime clients, a textile mill owner named Omar Farid. Mr. Farid has succumbed to stomach cancer two months previously. His estate was yet to be divided among his immediate family: three wives, two sons, two daughters and many others who would gladly take a portion.
Perveen was involved in the cumbersome process of double-checking the Farid holdings before the family agent could begin dispersing the estate. But this letter—Perveen stared at it, feeling confused. It would necessitate revising everything she’d done so far.
Perveen laid the letter on the center of her father’s desk just as Mustafa came in with a small silver tray holding a cup of tea with two Brittania biscuits perched jauntily on the saucer.
Sipping the hot, milky brew, Perveen asked, “Have you been out to the street this morning?”
“Just to get the milk, when the boy came around.”
“Did you notice a strange man on the street by Sassanian’s?”
“No—is something afoot?”
Perveen went to the window, where she picked up the opera glasses again. As she expected, Mustafa followed. It took her a few minutes to show the elderly man how to adjust the lenses to his needs.
“Such magical spectacles! One can see all over the neighborhood with these.”
“Mustafa, look toward Sassanian’s. Do you see the fellow standing outside?”
“Yes, yes, the man in a white dhoti. I believe he was there when I got the milk.”
“Usual time—twenty-thirty minutes before your arrival.”
So—he had been staked out for three hours straight. What was his business? Perveen couldn’t stand wondering about it. Trying to sound casual, she told Mustafa, “I’ll walk over now and ask why he’s there.”
Mustafa put down the glasses. “You are a young lady alone; I should be the one to speak to that badmash.”
“Mustafa, please stay here. There are so many people on the street. He wouldn’t dare lay a hand on me.”
“I will be watching every moment through the spectacles,” Mustafa pledged.
Still grumbling about danger to young ladies, the watchman followed her downstairs. He opened the frosted glass door ceremoniously and remained on the marble step. This was his compromise, regarding her protection.
The Bengali acknowledged her arrival by a sharp upward movement of his face; then turned his face the other direction, as if he didn’t want to be noticed.
As a bullock-cart rolled past, Perveen took advantage of its cover to cross the street unnoticed.
“Good morning. Do you work nearby, sir?” Perveen asked politely in Hindi. She didn’t want him knowing that she’d already marked him as a foreigner.
“Is that so? Are you waiting for someone in Bruce Street? I know almost everyone.” She wanted him to say more.
For several seconds his mouth opened, revealing crooked, paan-stained teeth. But just as quickly he pulled himself up fast and rushed down the pavement and around the corner.
“What…” Her voice trailed off, now that her audience was gone.
“Huzzah, Perveen-didi! Huzzah!”
In front of the law building, Mustafa was waving his arms overhead as if she’d just bowled a perfect cricket score. She waved her fingers back and went inside the bakery.
Lily Sassanian was behind the counter. The fourteen-year-old’s long hair was tied up with a traditional mathabana cloth, and she wore a snowy apron over a pretty yellow sari. “Perveen-behen! A good morning to you!”
Aunty? Since when had she become old enough to be called that? “Lily, what a nice surprise. But why aren’t you in school?”
“A water pipe burst yesterday, so it’s closed.”
“Ay khoda. I hope nobody from Mistry Construction laid those lines.”
“Who cares about the pipe? I’d rather be here baking cakes with Baba.”
While Perveen would always be incompetent in the kitchen, some women had a genius for it. How ironic it was that Lily’s father was the one inadvertently training her to be someone’s perfect daughter-in-law.
Firoze Sassanian 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? The dahitan were fried an hour ago and are soaking in the sweetest rose water syrup you’ll ever taste. And of course there are the cashew and almond fudges, and the pudding and custard cups—”
Perveen was glad she’d had the foresight to bring her purse. “I’m welcoming an old friend from England at Ballard Pier later on today, so a small box of dahitan. But I came to ask whether you noticed a strange gentleman lingering near your door?”
“A Bengali customer,” Firoze said. “He bought a date-nut cake and big piece of almond fudge. He would not sit at table but went outside.”
“He was still there a few minutes ago. He wouldn’t say why he was waiting around. I asked and he ran away as if I were a nasty British policeman!”
Lily and Firoze both laughed at that.
Lily said, “I bet he arrived on the overnight train, because he seemed quite tired. Baba, remember how he asked 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 language did he speak?”
“Hindi,” Firoze said. “But he made every S into a SH. That’s how I guessed his native place.”
“Also Bengalis love sweets so much,” Lily said. “Maybe even more than Parsis.”
The Sassanians were excellent—if digressive—witnesses. “Did he say he was waiting for Mistry Law to open? Or any other business?”
“He said nothing, and I did not waste another moment offering hospitality. My cardamom-raison dough that needed attention. It’s a good thing you told that velgard where to go. I don’t like men staying outside the door—it could keep ladies away.”
Perveen hadn’t meant to scare off the man without getting any information. She’d moved too impulsively. The story of her life.
The English metaphor for what she’d done was “put her foot in it.” And the final part of the phrase—the final ‘it’—reminded her of another English expression—an unspeakable one—she’d learned from the Honorable Alice Hobson-Jones.
Who was that man?
Once she’d returned to Mistry house, Perveen put her thoughts of the stranger away with the box of dahitan. Returning to the Farid estate paperwork, she continued without a break until she heard a discreet cough at the door. It was Mustafa, saying her father had returned and wanted to eat lunch right away.
Perveen washed up in the lavatory next to the office and went downstairs to the
dining room, where Jamshedji Mistry sat at the rosewood table, studying the Times.
Perveen settled herself into the high-backed chair at the immediate right of the man known as Bombay’s King of Contracts. Her father was a sharp, good-looking man of fifty, with a thick head of graying brown hair. His most dominant feature—which Perveen had inherited in a slightly reduced version—was a beaky nose. Outsiders joked about Parsi noses, but Perveen loved their shared trait.
The two bent their heads and recited the Baj. Then Mustafa served what the family cook had packed in the tiffins: ground lamb kofta balls, a tamarind chicken curry, a thick yellow dal with mustard greens, and her favorite caramelized rice. He’d also sent four pickles and fragrant chappatis. No sweets came with lunch, because Perveen’s mother was worried about Jamshedji’s wastline.
“So Pappa, why the silence? What was the verdict?” Perveen asked as Mustafa was going around with the dishes.
“As you know, I’d hoped to have the case dismissed on grounds of insufficient evidence, but Judge Thorpe rejected that claim. The case went forward.” Taking two spoons of the chicken farccha, Jamshedji said, “You should have seen the opposing counsel smiling, anticipating our ruin!”
“So which argument did you use? I prepared so many—”
“Indeed. After just thirty minutes, Judge Thorpe had heard enough. He ruled in favor of our boy!” Jamshedji said.
The “boy” was Jayanth, a twenty-year-old Marathi dockworker who’d been charged with inciting unrest through the organization of other workers. Taking into account the growing British fear of Communists, Perveen suggested that her father cast Jayanth as someone with no affiliations to any political groups, but with a strong desire for the personal safety of his fellow workers. This concern would ultimately aid his employer, because fewer accidents and deaths allowed work without interruption.
“Did Jayanth take the stand?”
“Of course. He did very well, saying what we told him, but in such a forthright manner.”
“How wonderful. Does this mean Jayanth will go back to his old position?”
“Yes—and not miss a day’s pay for the time he was off.”
“How splendid. I wish I’d seen you plead for him.”
“Ah, but the work of a solicitor in the office is much more important! If it weren’t for the real estate and inheritance contract work you do so well, we could not even take on pro bonos like Jayanth’s.” Jamshedji was not one to give many compliments; in the year or so Perveen had been in the office, he’d said little about her considerable efforts. Perveen was actually performing the tasks a solicitor, but also law clerk, translator and accountant. The only employee beside Mustafa was Prem, who waited outside courtrooms so he could run back and tell Mr. Mistry when his case might be on the docket.
“I suppose so,” Perveen said. “Actually, I was wondering whether you forgot you had a client today?”
“I forget nothing but birthdays. Does this relate to what Mustafa said about your spying through opera glasses?”
“Yes. A stranger who looked Bengali was lurking across the street for three hours. Eventually I went across to enquire, but he ran off without explaining.”
“Perveen-jaan, it’s unwise to approach people on the street. The Fort is becoming overcrowded with all types.”
“But not types who stand around for so long! Firoze Sassanian said the man asked him when law offices opened in the area—but he didn’t go away from his post watching our building. What if he’s someone angry about the outcome of a past case?”
Her father savored the last bit of a chapatti before speaking. “Very unlikely! Don’t worry about it another moment.”
Perveen sighed. “Let’s talk about the Farids, then. I opened a letter from the Farid household—two letters in one envelope, actually.”
“From the same individual?”
“No. The cover letter was from Mr. Faisl Nawaz, the family’s agent. He wrote to say the wives want to give up their marriage payments to put into the family’s charitable foundation. It means the Farid widows will essentially give up everything that’s theirs.”
“It sounds as if you are speaking of mahr.”
“Yes,” Perveen said, realizing she should have used the word for the special dowry Muslim women received. Perveen’s knowledge of Shia and Sunni Islamic law was limited, as she’d not worked on contracts for any Muslim clients until the Farids.
“Lately, the judges have been rather prickly about mahr. Bring me the letter, please.”
Perveen fetched both letters and her father pulled the gold monocle from his waistcoat pocket to study the fine sheet of vellum. Then he shook his head. “Worthless!”
“Isn’t it strange that all three women wish to make a change against their own interests before the funds have been released? And how convenient for the judge that this document is already in English! Would all three really be fluent in English?”
“I cannot answer the last question because I have never met the ladies. But I share your disapproval of this document.”
“Are you telling me you’ve never spoken to the wives—not even at the funeral?”
“Muslim women can’t attend funerals in mosques—they mourn at home. But I hadn’t the chance to ever meet them, even more matters relating to law, because they’re purdahnashins.”
“Purdah means ‘veil’—does nashin mean ‘lady’?”
“You are supposed to be studying Urdu!” her father scolded. “Nashin means ‘sitting’ or ‘dwelling.’ Purdahnashin means ‘those who stay behind the veil.’ The Farid wives live in strict seclusion, Excepting my late client, I believe the only male in the household is the infant son of the second wife, Sakina.”
“What do you think of the family’s agent, Mr. Nawaz? He’s the one who posted this with a letter of explanation. I’m supposed to be working on the estate for him, but he’s not answered many of the letters I’ve sent seeking more information.”
“Mr. Nawaz is his trusted employee from the textile company. I saw him many times when I visited Mr. Farid at his home during his illness. We spoke at length in 1918, when he came in with Mr. Farid to sign papers relating to his agency on behalf of the family. At that meeting, Mr. Nawaz also requested seeing the papers relating to the family wakf.”
Perveen nodded. A wakf was a family trust popular with wealthy Muslims. It dispersed funds not only to charity, but also family members. This was the place where the women’s mahr was headed, if they as lawyers acted on the document. Her initial reaction of concern over complications to the estate was shifting to something else. The Farid case was a golden opportunity to learn all about wakfs, mahr, and Muslim law.
Rising from her cane-backed chair, she went to examine the letter her father was holding. “Look there—two of the ladies’ signatures look similar. And even if the widows did all sign their names, how do we know they weren’t coerced by Mr. Nawaz?”
“I’d like to know—but how?”
“What do you mean? We represent Mr. Farid’s interests, so we have the right to ask.”
“As we’ve been discussing, my gender makes it impossible to enter the zenana. Perhaps I’d be allowed to speak to the women through a window screen—but that decision would be up to them and Mr. Nawaz.”
“Would Muslim females be allowed to meet with a Parsi female?”
He shrugged. “There’s a chance.”
“I’d like to try,” Perveen said. “Papa—please let me take this part on, rather than just writing back to Mr. Nawaz. I’ll be able to make certain the women truly wish to donate their assets.”
“I’m not sure you’re ready to make a personal call to secluded women. You must use caution.”
“I’m always cautious!”
“No,” he said with a smile. “You are impatient, impetuous and insensitive of others’ views. Not only have you spoken against the government, you’ve also said too much on women’s rights to people who don’t agree. These are females who have been sheltered their whole lives. You could terrify them!”
“I’ll be an angel,” Perveen said. “Please, Papa.”
“The Farid wives very likely ended their educations by their early teens,” Jamshedji said. “They may not know that Muslim law allows them to keep property, initiate divorce or remarry.”
“Some of their rights are better than British women’s rights—and Parsi women’s,” she added. “I can explain this better to them than anyone.”
Jamshedji gave her an appraising look. “A thorough review of Principles of Mohamedan Law and the Urdu dictionary is essential before you ask for a meeting. I also recommend that you scrutinize every document in Mr. Farid’s files. There’s more than you can know.”
“Then you’ll let me undertake this? Oh, you’re a darling! Papa, thank you so very much—”
“No need for thanks,” Jamshedji said gruffly. “This is a matter of business, not a family favor. If you want to become my full-fledged partner, you have thousands of hours of work ahead—”
“That I’ve started already!” Perveen said, kissing his cheek.
After lunch, Jamshedji strolled off to the Ripon Club, ostensibly to “see a gentleman.” Perveen guessed he was headed for one of the Parsi social club’s long-armed teak lounging chairs in which certain barristers were infamous for putting up their legs and snoring away.
Perveen returned to the office and unlocked the tall cabinet where client files were stored. As the door swung open, she breathed in the cloying scent of camphor and surveyed stacks and stacks of cloth, leather and cardboard-bound folios holding files for every man or woman who’d sought her father’s aid since he’d joined the Bombay Bar Association in 1895.
A thick, black cotton folio tied with a white ribbon held the Farid files. At her desk, she untied the binding at her desk and drew out a sheath of papers. She noticed immediately that the English documents all had duplicates in Marathi, the most widely spoken language in Bombay. Marathi was Perveen’s third language—after Gujarati and English, the languages in which she’d been simultaneously raised.
Perveen sorted through dozens of papers, gathering three groups representing the three wives. The paperwork regarding the establishment of the Farid Family Foundation wakf went in a separate category.
The first wife, Razia Burbere, was listed as being born in 1888 in the princely kingdom of Hyderabad, about 500 miles to the south. For the mahr payment upon marriage, Mr. Farid had given Razia 2 acres of land. Razia’s second mahr gift was a one thousand rupees.
Studying the map showing Razia’s land, Perveen noticed it was in the central part of the city, where many textile mills were built up in the late 19th century. In fact, the area was near Girangaon, which meant “city of mills.” The document didn’t explain whether the land had buildings on it or was still undeveloped. Ruffling through the papers that she’d meant to look at later, she noticed a contract Mr. Farid had given a builder to erect mills on his wife Razia’s acreage. Following this came many contracts for cloth production, including huge orders from the Indian Army.
The next group of papers pertained to Sakina Chivre, his bride of 1912. Wife Number Two came from Poona, one hundred miles northwest of Bombay. Mr. Farid had given Sakina a much more typical mahr gift of an “emerald and diamond pendant set in 20-ounces of gold chain with gold-and-diamond clasp.” Perveen could imagine how impressive this piece must have been for a fifteen-year-old bride. Mr. Farid’s fabric mills must have been thriving, if he could have purchased such a gift for Sakina. The second half of her mahr was listed as five thousand rupees; five times what he’d promised his first wife.
The repeated blare of a loud ship’s horn interrupted her concentration. Perveen knew the distinctive sounds made by large passenger steamers coming into Ballard Pier. Very likely this was the S.S. London. No need to rush, though—the customs boat would meet it and perform inspections before Alice came ashore. She was glad to see her friend; but she still had some time to keep reading.
Perveen began reading the mahr document for the third Mrs. Farid, who had joined Omar in matrimony in 1919—just ten months ago. The former Mumtaz Aliyah Shafila Khan was born in Perveen’s birth year—1897—and resided at 43 Grant Road. Grant Road was the pleasure quarter; a place where only men visited, primarily for opium and prostitutes. Why would a textile magnate seek a wife here?
Mumtaz’s mahr was listed as “one fine sitar, one vina of equal quality, and the sum of three thousand rupees.” The final half of the mahr payment was listed as five thousand rupees: just the same as Sakina. Given the choice of instruments, Perveen suspected Mumtaz had been one of Bombay’s infamous musical courtesans. Perhaps Mr. Farid fell head-over-heels for her and had thrown propriety to the winds and brought her home. The cynical supposition was that Mumtaz had taken advantage of a rich man during a time of weakness and conned him into the marriage. She made a note that Mumtaz’s signature on the mahr document was just the letter ‘X,’ a commonly accepted mark for someone who could not write. However, she had signed her name in English on the letter from the three wives. Could she have become literate very quickly—or had someone else signed the second letter for her?
Inside the folder containing Mr. Farid’s will, she located a clipped newspaper obituary with a photograph. Mr. Farid looked both serious and respectable. A close-fitting cap drew attention to his narrow face, with hard-looking eyes and a prominent, hooked nose. Mr. Farid had a neat mustache, but no beard. The photograph showed him wearing a high-necked kurta and the edges of a dark sherwani coat. The article spoke of the establishment of Farid Fabrics and the Farid Family Wakf and named his three wives, four children, and several other surviving relatives.
Perveen laid down the obituary and re-examined the mahr documents. They’d been produced on the Mistrys’ Royal typewriter that rested on a metal stand a few feet away. The initials ‘VM’ in the corner indicated that Mr. Vinoy Mehta, her father’s clerk during her childhood years, had typed up the first two mahr documents for Razia and Sakina. A different clerk had issued the one for Mumtaz with the “AD’ insignia. But AD was no longer—Mr. Adil Desai, had quit two months earlier, insisting that Perveen’s joining the firm had created too many distractions for him to continue clerking.
Perveen was secretly glad there was no office clerk peering over her shoulder, making sure she was paying attention. She’d slowed down because she felt as if she’d been reading very personal paper that outlined not just the promises of marriage, but the reasons these people had come together. From her own experience, she knew how easy it was to be swept away.