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If truth is stranger than fiction then Nayana Currimbhoy has succeeded in holding up a mirror to life in her mystery, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls. She also knows the right ingredients to include in her debut fiction in order to stir up a good story. Her setting takes one away from the twentieth-first century and your average Indian town. In Miss Timmins’ School for Girls,Currimbhoy creates a boarding school culture, much like Enid Blyton did for children, but unlike the latter, who made girls and boys (including me) desire to be placed in a boarding school, Currimbhoy makes us adults weary and horrified of such an institution, a breeding ground for disaster.
Her heroine, Charu had the kind of sheltered upbringing that privileged girls receive in India in early childhood, only to be plunged as an adult into the most unsuitable environment. Ironically, Charu ends up in Miss Timmins’ School for Girls because her father thinks it is the safest place for her to teach. Currimbhoy sets the story in an exotic location, Panchgani, a hill station surrounded by five mountains, a place that is hard to access or leave during the monsoons, but which has eight boarding schools.
Charu is the daughter of a disgraced navy officer and a small-town beauty. After he is court-martialed their lives are never the same. They have to give up their sea-facing flat in Bombay as the father begins a new life as the regional manager of a trucking company that belongs to his wife’s family. Physically, each member of the family carries the internal wounds from the consequences of his fall from grace and privilege. The father’s face becomes gray and he acquires a stoop; the mother packs twenty pounds and Charu develops eczema that appears as a strawberry mark above her lip. Ayurvedic and homeopathy remedies followed by cow-dung and cow-urine applications fail to remove what she refers to metaphorically as the “blot.” Ironically, the blemish reacts to the crises in her life, waxing and waning with every turbulence. Family secrets heighten our interest in the protagonist, Charu. Indeed, mysterious circumstances seem to follow wherever she goes, as if it is part of her destiny.
The first chapter piques our interest, with Charu’s father chaperoning her in a train bound for Panchgani, where she will be a teacher in a boarding school run by British missionaries who try to reproduce their culture to such ridiculous proportions that they have an annual Scottish Dancing Competition. “It was when the girls bobbed in, their toes perfectly pointed and their chests puffed out like Scottish Highlanders, that it struck me just how bizarre the school was.” The year is 1974, when the British influence is well on the decline elsewhere in India.
Many characters are thrown at the reader, including teachers, students, the local inhabitants, and Charu’s relatives. At times, it becomes difficult to prioritize and remember the important ones.
As expected in a boarding school, there are nicknames to contend with. Soon Charu finds herself as part of a triangle of three: Merch, the Mystery Man; Moira Prince, a British teacher; and herself. “Later, I understood that we were so drawn to each other, Merch, the Prince, and I, because we were the outsiders.” Elsewhere Charu says, “And though Merch and Pin were too eccentric and ungainly to be glamorous, this same sophistication glowed around them, pulling me into their orbit.”
Without those explanations and her own neediness her attraction to Merch would be unfathomable, given his appearance (slightly seedy and stalk-like, his reclusive nature, his tendency to smoke pot and his off-putting dwellings (two shabbily furnished rooms above a dispensary). Under Merch’s influence Charu smokes pot, which makes me wonder if she’d turn out to be an unreliable narrator, but though she hallucinates about her mother, when she misleads us it is due to the plot rather than any literary ploy. Her intense attraction to Moira and their subsequent affair seem an inevitable and credible outcome of Charu being naïve, easily manipulated, and drawn to the mysterious side of the woman. Moira, who is moody and disliked at school, is destined for a predictably bad fate.
During the monsoon season, on a full moon night after a quarrel with her lover, Moira is thrown off a large rock. A group of students play detective to solve the crime. Currimbhoy raises suspect after suspect, as well as the possibility of suicide. The reader feels the excitement of the momentum and later gets impatient as the build-up becomes a little too long-winded. Another mystery in the novel, linked to the killing, occurs when the Hindi teacher, who largely keeps to herself, disappears. Charu possesses important information that she is afraid to reveal because doing so will reveal her lesbian affair, the knowledge of which would kill her unwell mother. The murder, of course, has serious repercussions on the school.
Currimbhoy’s writing is uneven with well-rendered descriptions and striking similes coexisting with purple passages and tired metaphors. Her forte is her storytelling prowess that manages plot, setting and characters, but what is most memorable is the boarding school background. (A google search revealed there is a Kimmins High School in Panchgani that had been established by Miss Elsie Kimmins, a missionary, leading one to the conclusion that the institution was the inspiration for the fictional counterpart.) The information provided in the book jacket states that the writer attended boarding school in India.
Currimbhoy has clearly taken the author’s adage of “write what you know best” and given us a compelling read.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.