Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is a book of many parts—five if you count the prologue and epilogue. Set in the titular boarding school, a colonial establishment dragging its feet into the 1970s, quietly horrified by how times are changing in the Maharashtrian hill station of Panchgani, Nayana Currimbhoy’s debut novel combines romance with murder, sexual awakening with social critique, and multi-narrative technique with good old-fashioned storytelling. At 500 pages, it will certainly boil your pot.
Charulata Apte is Currimbhoy’s primary narrator, and she arrives at Miss Timmins’ when barely out of her teens, the first Hindu teacher to be admitted into the ranks of its Protestant staffroom. Almost immediately she is drawn to Miss Moira Prince, a young Englishwoman with a dark secret. Given Moira’s predilection for striding about the monsoon-wet trails of Panchgani in jodhpurs and knee-high gumboots when unencumbered by her duties as the school’s sports teacher, or given the fact that she’s called “the Prince”, it’s not hard to guess what this secret might be.
Miss Timmins’ School for Girls: HarperCollins India, 496 pages,Rs. 399.
With the Prince, Charu discovers not only her Sapphic side but also a bunch of pot-smoking, acid-dropping hippies, the most intriguing of whom is the gangly Merch, or Mystery Man. Then, just as Charu is settling into her new life, discovering the pleasures of teaching Macbeth when stoned, a murder brings chaos to the school, its students, the town and, of course, to Charu herself.
Currimbhoy juggles the murder, a handful of suspects and at least three investigations with commendable skill: Rarely does the tension slack, and yet Currimbhoy creates enough leeway to allow for extended, often very funny, digressions into her characters’ lives. Charu, for example, is distracted from her enquiries into the homicide by trouble at home.
No longer the shy, wilting creature she was when she left, Charu brings a wry, irreverent confidence (not to mention a taste for cigarettes and bigbindis) to her dealings with her large, conservative Brahmin family. Yes, she still worries that she will “end up like the spinster aunts with polio… living frugally on the outer edge of the family, peeling potatoes and minding the red chillies drying on the roof”; but now she also notices, dryly, the “rule of park benches…They must be dedicated to the memory of a loving wife and mother, or they must be in loving memory of a husband and father…No respectable park bench could dare be dedicated to the memory of a loving husband.”
Meanwhile, at Timmins’, four “find-outers”—Nandita, Akhila, Ramona and Shobha—take advantage of the disruption of their scholastic routine to do some probing of their own. They inhabit a world of prefects and lunch bells, draw up charts of suspects and collect clues with aplomb, but there’s little that’s Blytonesque about these schoolgirls. They summon spirits by torchlight, but they do so white-haired with DDT, an anti-lice measure; they have friendly nicknames for their teachers, but they take a more wicked delight in eavesdropping on their headmistress’ bathroom rumblings; and though thick as thieves, they harbour “an orphaned feeling in the pit of all (their) stomachs”—aware that they’ve been sent away by parents who can’t, or won’t, cope.
Currimbhoy has a talent for scrutinizing characters and their points of view until nothing is quite what it seems. The town’s placid policeman has a history that may give him a more than professional interest in the case, the details of Charu’s parents’ marriage are increasingly murky, Merch may be “quietly brilliant” but perhaps also quite amoral.
In a thriller, such constantly shifting perspectives can serve to keep readers on edge, never sure when the turn of a page will transform a seemingly innocent butler into a murderous psychopath. It can also lull readers into relative complacency: If you begin to feel that anyone may be pulled out of a hat for having done it, you stop caring who did.
The wonderful Ellery Queen thrillers often threw a “challenge to the reader”. At some point in the story, Queen would declare that all the clues necessary to solve the crime were now in the reader’s possession—and then proceed to solve it with utterly unexpected results. Of course, this isn’t the perfect technique for all crime novels, but its basic premise—no last-minute revelations—is useful to keep in mind. For one thing, perhaps it ensures that the rug is pulled from under the murderer’s, not the reader’s, feet.
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