Writing from Warm Places

By Barbara Woshinsky, as originally published in the February 2019 issue of the 1666 
Coffman Newsletter.

Winter is a time for reading and dreaming of faraway places. If you have not departed for Arizona or Fiji, there are other ways to escape into a balmier climate—even a different continent—without the inconveniences of bag-packing or security lines. The gateway can be found in our wonderful Coffman library. This column will feature a new thriller from India as well as other works from outside our Euro-American heritage.

While The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018) is a newcomer to our shelves, its author is not. Sujata Massey is the creator of a popular mystery series about Rei Shimura, a young woman seeking to negotiate her Japanese and American heritages. Massey herself has a cosmopolitan background. Born in England to German and Indian parents, she was mainly raised in Saint Paul and now lives in Baltimore.

Massey’s new book (and hopefully new series) explores cultural contacts and conflicts in colonial Bombay through the eyes of its intrepid heroine, Parveen Mistry. Parveen belongs to the Parsi community, descended from the Zoroastrian Persians who migrated to the subcontinent in the seventh century to escape Muslim persecution. She is a solicitor with an Oxford degree, working with her barrister father. (Though unusual, this situation is not invented: an Indian woman read law at Oxford and was admitted to the Bombay Bar in 1923.) Through flashbacks, we learn that Parveen suffered abuse at the hands of her husband before returning home to her family. Her father’s firm is now representing three Muslim widows who live in seclusion in the fashionable neighborhood of Malabar Hill. Suspicions of fraud turn into something darker when the family agent is killed, and Parveen herself is again put in danger through her efforts to protect the women and their children. This suspenseful novel keeps you reading; but its main attraction for me was the revelation of an Indian subculture I didn’t know existed. Meticulously researched, the book includes a multilingual glossary featuring Parsi-Gujarati foods, customs, and insults. Anyone interested in law, local history, complex cultures, women’s rights, or just a good story, will enjoy this novel!

Also noted:

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016). The popular host of The Daily Show recounts with pointed humor the experience of growing up as a mixed-race child in South Africa at a time when interracial unions were punishable by law, and how he survived through his own tenacity and the support of his indomitable mother.

The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013. This Nobel-prize winning poet was born on the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean; he has lived and traveled widely in Europe and the United States. Walcott’s evocations of his homeland and his erudite, passionate voice will carry you away.

Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians (2013) is the novel on which the popular movie and sequels are based. If you’re looking for great literature, leave this one on the shelf; but if you want an entertaining insight into the mixed languages and cultures—and delicious food—of the beautiful Malaysian peninsula, give this a try.

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