November 1921. Edward VIII, Prince of Wales and future ruler of India, is arriving in Bombay to begin a fourmonth tour. The Indian subcontinent is chafing under British rule, and Bombay solicitor Perveen Mistry isn’t surprised when local unrest over the royal arrival spirals into riots. But she’s horrified by the death of Freny Cuttingmaster, an eighteen-year-old female Parsi student, who falls from a second-floor gallery just as the prince’s grand procession is passing by her college.
Freny had come for a legal consultation just days before her death, and what she confided makes Perveen suspicious that her death was not an accident. Feeling guilty for failing to have helped Freny in life, Perveen steps forward to assist Freny’s family in the fraught dealings of the coroner’s inquest. When Freny’s death appears suspicious, Perveen knows she can’t rest until she sees justice done. But Bombay is erupting: as armed British secret service march the streets, rioters attack anyone with perceived British connections, and desperate shopkeepers destroy their own wares so they will not be targets of racial violence. Can Perveen help a suffering family when her own is in danger?
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Perveen Mistry spoke aloud as she slid the signed contracts into envelopes. Lighting a candle against a wax stick, she allowed a scarlet drop to fall on the back of each envelope. The final touch was pressing down the brass stamp engraved Mistry Law. It felt ridiculous to praise herself, but this rental contract had taken four months. Term sheets had passed back and forth between two men who seemed convinced that without yet another restriction, their respective honors would be stolen.
The truth was, the landlord and renter needed each other. Mistry Law’s client, Mr. Shah, sought an occupant for a bungalow on Cumballa Hill. Mr. Ahmad, an administrator at a shipping firm, was a well-qualified renter. Perveen had composed an agreement based on her past contracts for the landlord’s properties. But suddenly, her client wanted an amendment prohibiting the butchering of meat. Mr. Ahmad had crossed that out and written in capital letters that his wife had the right to cut and cook whatever she pleased. He also insisted that Mr. Shah replace a dying mango tree in the garden.
An adequate home was hard to find, especially a free-standing one. People from all across British India and the independent princely states were streaming into Bombay looking for good-paying work. The bungalows of the late nineteenth century were crumbling from decay, so the middle class made do with flats. Still, throughout the city most buildings stayed homogeneous in terms of religion, region, and language.
Perveen suspected that religious anxiety had infected her Parsi client and made the prospective Muslim renter react defensively. She’d sent each gentleman a polite letter reminding him that municipal taxes would rise in the new year, so he might wish to put a pause on all real estate activity until they saw the new rate.
The prospect of having an empty house when a tax bill was due led Mr. Shah to remove the butchering clause. Mr. Ahmad thanked him and removed his request for the landlord to replace the tree; however, he requested permission to make gardening improvements as the family saw fit. Perveen assured Mr. Shah that a tenant who made garden improvements at personal cost would improve property value and the landlord’s reputation.
Now the contracts were signed, sealed, and almost delivered.
Taking the envelopes in hand, she went to find Mustafa. The silver-haired giant who served as Mistry Law’s guard, butler, and receptionist was already coming upstairs. As he took the envelopes from her, he announced, “A young lady has come.”
“Lily?” She’d been expecting a delivery of biscuits and cake from Yazdani’s Café.
“No. She is named Miss Cuttingmaster.” Mustafa’s long, stiff mustache made an impressive show as he enunciated the name.
“What an unusual name. I suppose it is probably Muslim or Parsi,” Perveen mused.
Mustafa nodded. “You are correct, and I think this one has the face of an Irani. She said that Miss Hobson-Jones referred her to you.”
Perveen’s interest was piqued. Alice Hobson-Jones, Perveen’s best friend, was teaching mathematics at Woodburn College. Perhaps Miss Cuttingmaster was her student. “I’ll be right down. Would you kindly bring us some tea?”
“Already on the table.”
Perveen peeked through the half-open parlor door to observe her visitor. Miss Cuttingmaster sat on the edge of the plum velvet settee with a book in her lap. Her head was bent over it, showing a tumble of dark curls. Thin forearms peeped out from the sleeves of a crisp white cotton blouse worn under a drab tan sari. A khaki drill-cloth satchel rested against her legs.
“Kem cho.” Perveen greeted her in the Gujarati that many Parsis spoke together.
Quickly, Freny Cuttingmaster closed her book. “Yes. Good morning, ma’am, how should I address you? Should it be ‘esquire’?”
The young woman’s use of English was surprising, given that she wore homespun cloth favored by independence activists. However, English was also the chief language of the academic world, so perhaps that was why she chose to use it.
The room had enough seating for four, but instead of taking one of the Queen Anne wing chairs, Perveen sat a few feet from the student on the settee itself. Her hope was to put the stiff-seeming girl at ease. “My name is Perveen Mistry. I feel a little too young for ‘ma’am,’ and ‘esquire’ is mainly used in the United States for lawyers. May I have your good name?”
“It is Freny.” As she spoke, the girl edged away slightly. “I still don’t know what to call you. ‘Memsahib’ is a term mostly used for the British, so I won’t call you that. I don’t like ‘ma’am’ much, either.”
Perveen thought about the typical honorific used for Parsi women. “If you’d like, you may call me Perveen-bai.”
Freny nodded. “Perveen-bai, I am representing Woodburn College’s Student Union. We are seeking a legal consultation.”
Activism was on an uptick throughout Bombay. In recent months the famous lawyer Mohandas Gandhi had been gaining adherents with his calls for protest against British rule. Perveen longed to assist freedom fighters, but she was a solicitor, so her work was mostly contracts. “I am honored you thought of Mistry Law. Would you like to tell me your concern?”
Freny looked intently at Perveen. “We want to know if we have the right to stay away from college without being punished.”
Perveen mulled over the words. “I don’t think I understand. students are expected to attend classes as a condition of enrollment. Do you have a conflict with one of the lecturers?”
“Not at all. I’m in my second year, and I love my college.” She gave the book in her hands a squeeze. “Actually, we students would not be missing instruction on the day I’m thinking about, because classes that day are canceled.”
For this, the girl had come to Mistry Law? Trying not to sound irritated, Perveen said, “In your case, I think you would be forgiven a day off. Students often miss college for reasons of illness and family matters.”
“But it’s not that. It is political.” She pronounced the last word carefully, stressing its importance. “We want to be absent from college on the day the Prince of Wales enters Bombay. Did you know that Gandhiji has called a hartal?”
“Yes. I’ve seen the placards advising people to boycott the prince.” Perveen had noticed these renegade announcements next to the “Welcome Prince of Wales” signs posted by the government all over town. On Thursday, Edward would disembark at the Port of Bombay and begin a four-month tour of India. The arrival of the twenty-seven-year-old prince seemed like a promise of many more decades of British rule.
Freny leaned forward and spoke with hushed excitement. “We students put up some of the placards. We don’t want people attending the parade. However, the college principal said everyone must be present on the day of the prince’s arrival. Workers are building a special viewing stand in front of the college. We’re supposed to applaud that loathsome prince when he parades along the Kennedy Sea-Face.”
Freny’s passionate speech left no question of her conviction. But what would the consequences be if she held back from school? “Does your Student Union have a faculty advisor?”
“Yes. Mr. Terrence Grady.” Freny’s lips turned up at the corners.
Perveen hoped that Freny didn’t have a crush. “Does Mr. Grady report about your club to the administration?”
“I don’t think so,” Freny answered after a moment. “He is an Irishman, and many Irish are not at all keen on being part of Britain. Mr. Grady confessed that because he’s an employee, he must come to school that day. He knows about the Student Union’s desire to stay back and urged us to follow our conscience.”
Perveen’s shoulders relaxed and she said, “He sounds like a fair man. What can you tell me about the college principal?”
“His name is Horace Virgil Atherton.” She spoke the name in staccato syllables, showing none of the warmth she’d had for Mr. Grady. “He’s a temporary principal who joined in October. Our regular principal is away on furlough. During the Christian scripture hour, before the chaplain speaks, Mr. Atherton sometimes addresses us. I’ve only heard him say things like we must stop crowding and pushing past each other in the galleries and stairs. Nothing about philosophy or the nature of education.”
Perveen snorted. “Your principal sounds better suited to supervising primary school. What reason does he have to talk about hallway behavior?”
Freny rewarded her with an appreciative smirk. “He thinks there is too much hustle and bustle, and someone could fall down. He said the college’s females could be injured, which was very annoying to my friends and me. We aren’t made of porcelain.”
“No. Bombay women are at least as strong as coconuts!” After Freny laughed, Perveen added, “Why are you in a Christian scripture class?”
“It’s not a mandatory course. However, roll call is taken at the start of that scripture class. So everyone goes, regardless of faith.”
“Are you saying that in order to be marked present, you must sit through a religious service?” Perveen paused, wondering if there were grounds for some kind of suit. “Woodburn College is a missionary institution, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. It was founded by Reverend Andrew Woodburn, Church of Scotland, who came to Bombay in 1810.”
“How do your parents feel about you having a Presbyterian college education?”
“My father says the college’s name carries weight and I will benefit from the other coursework.” Smiling wistfully, she added, “He’s the head tailor at the Hawthorn Shop. He boasts to his customers that I’m studying at Woodburn College.”
A tailor would be proud to send his daughter to one of the city’s oldest colleges. And now she understood how perfectly suited his name was. “Your father must be a tolerant person.”
“I would not say that.” Freny pointed directly at one of the wing chairs and chuckled. “My father would be annoyed by that chair.”
Perveen was mystified. “Why?”
“The red banding is torn. There, on the leg.”
Perveen followed her gaze to the chair, which she hadn’t ever inspected in such a close fashion. “Goodness, you’re right. That’s my father’s favorite chair. Perhaps he snagged it with his shoe. He crosses his leg and taps his foot sometimes. Back to our topic—does your father know about your support of independence?”
Freny looked down at her book, as if the answer might lie within. When she raised her face, her expression was sober. “I wanted to tell him, but it was difficult. He thinks I’m too young to understand.”
Perveen nodded in sympathy. “Fathers are like that. Are you saying that he doesn’t know that you’re one of the leaders in the group?”
Freny shook her head vehemently. “I’m not a leader. There are only two of us in the group who are female.”
“You say you aren’t a leader, but it’s a significant responsibility to gather a legal opinion for the group,” Perveen challenged. “Be proud of yourself.”
“I can’t. I only thought helping them was the right thing. I don’t want anyone to be hurt.” Straightening the book in her lap, Freny added, “And I think, just by visiting you, it might improve things.”