Back to school

Miss Timmins’ School For Girls
Nayana Currimbhoy
Harper Collins
2011, pp 496
399

Leading a sheltered life with her parents in the small, sleepy town of Indore, yet-to-be-21 Charulata Apte dreams of a life in Bombay, “with bell-bottom pants and foreign perfume floating in the breeze behind her”.

But, her parents have other plans for her. They pack her off to Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, a boarding school run by British missionaries in Panchgani, to be an English teacher.

Teaching Shakespeare to girls from privileged classes of society and being the butt of their jokes for her accent very soon become a routine with Charu. Even as she is settling down into a life that’s no more than porridge, Shrewsbury biscuits, tea and Scottish dancing does she find herself drawn to Moira Prince, an English girl born of a missionary mother, harbouring many secrets of her own. And so begins her journey into a world that spells all things wild — drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and free love.

Enjoying her new-found freedom, Charu leads a double life — that of a dedicated teacher during the day and a pot-smoking hippie by the night, stealing kisses from her lesbian partner whenever darkness permits. While guilt becomes an alien word to her, the letters she receives from her parents prove to be her only connection with the real world.

Her conservative background and her mother’s failing health notwithstanding, she happily succumbs to the pleasure pot-smoking and lesbian relationship affords her.

Then one monsoon night, Moira Prince is murdered and her body is found at the bottom of a cliff. Everybody in the school and in the little town it is situated in, is in a state of shock. Investigations are on and Charu finds herself implicated in the murder. Is Charu the culprit? If not, what does she do to prove her innocence? Well, that forms the crux of Nayana Currimbhoy’s debut novel.

The story, narrated through the eyes of various characters, makes for an interesting read. However, as a murder mystery, the story doesn’t hold the readers’ interest for long. Packing in much more than a reader can take at one go, the story digresses from one issue to another, losing steam half way through the 496-page book.

But, the crime story apart, the book proves to be quite engrossing and hilarious at once. Especially those bits that relate the boarding girls’ longing for home, their dislike for canteen food, their hilarious antics and their penchant for pranks.

Life at boarding schools run by British missionaries is described as it is — strict, secure and authoritarian. Not surprising, as the author has studied in an all-girls boarding school herself and has probably drawn heavily from her personal experiences to make the book interesting.

The prose, beautifully written, takes the reader through with admirable ease. So does characterisation as each and every character in the book appears to be real, people we know from somewhere, sometime. In fact, it serves as a means for the author to recreate the boarding school and the different worlds that exist around it in a believable manner.

If Moira Prince, with her troubled past, represents every other woman unsure of herself, Nandita, with her intellectual air, can give any literature student a complex. Reading the book definitely takes you back to your school days when Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers captivated you to no end. One word of caution though —  the comparison ends with the action in boarding schools. Nothing more and nothing less.

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