Miss Timmins’ School for Girls
by Nayana Currimbhoy
9780061997747, $14.99, HarperCollins
I don’t know what made me pick this book up. I don’t remember if I saw it advertised somewhere online, or if someone recommended it on Goodreads, or if I just saw it on the new books shelf, but for whatever reason I checked it out of the library and am so glad I did.
This is Nayana Currimbhoy’s first novel. Her writing can only be described as lovely, and I look forward to reading more of her work. I’m not a fan of overt similes – X was like Y – and Ms. Currimbhoy is a master of the subtly evocative metaphor.
Told in three parts, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is first and foremost the story of Charulata Apte, a Brahmin Indian girl called Charu for short. At the age of 21 in 1974, Charu makes her first venture out into the world by taking a teaching position at boarding school in Panchgani, one still run “like an outpost of the British Empire”. Class structure is very much at play, and shy, timid, only-child Charu is slowly, almost delicately, drawn out of herself when she unwillingly befriends Miss Moira Prince, a prickly, insubordinate, unexpectedly charming White teacher. Through Pin, as Charu calls her, Charu is introduced to the charms of the 70s – the Mystery Man known as Merch (a friend of Pin’s), and with him, the music, the drugs, the politics, the independence. Touched by new ideas, new feelings, new experiences, Charu nonetheless feels safe inside her Panchgani/Timmins’ School bubble, where the outside world never really intrudes.
Until a murder occurs. Until her mother is hospitalized.
Suddenly the perspective changes, and the story continues from the perspective of Nandita, one of Charu’s top students, and Nandita’s friends, who had snuck away to the place known as table-top on the night of the murder. With Macbeth and Gothic romances and contemporary detective novels as their guides, Nandita, Akhila, Ramona, and Shoba attempt to put together the pieces of that night. Miss Nelson, the school principal, was seen on table-top. So was Charu. So was Merch. So were some boys from another local school, Mr. Blind Irani, and enough people so that it seemed like half the school and town were out that night, the night there was a full moon and the rain stopped in the middle of the monsoon season. False accusations, false arrests, family connections and secrets and revelations, for a brief moment Timmins’ School and all of Panchgani are national news in a huge game of who-dunnit.
Perspective changes again and it is now several years later. Charu has gone to Bombay, to become a teacher there. No longer provincial, living with her father and her child, life has moved on in so many ways, but she has never forgotten. A chance meeting with an old student brings it all rushing back, all the same feelings of first love, second love, guilt, confusion, frustration – and under it all, still a lingering question about what really happened the night of the murder. A trip back to Panchgani is needed to once-and-for-all discover the truth about that night up at table-top and how those events formed who Charu came to be.
The publisher’s marketing calls this book “ultimately, a coming-of-age tale set against the turbulence of the 1970s as it played out in one small corner of India,” but it’s so much more than that. Reading this book was almost like traveling to India, with words and phrases and actions and castes and socio-cultural elements sprinkled throughout the prose. Though there is a glossary in the back of the book, I preferred not to use it, instead immersing myself in this place I had never been, letting the unfamiliar words wash over me while I sympathized with the budding womanhood of Charu’s experiences. A true sensory pleasure.