Today's Reading



"Well done."

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.

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