The 1970s were, all those who have memories of the decade will agree, an in-between time. Two decades after Independence, the first flush of patriotic feeling had dissipated. Thanks to Nehru’s insular policies, the tenor of life remained much the same as it had in the past decades, on the surface at least. The winds of change had begun to blow, however, stirring things up. By this decade, refrigerators, record players and scooters had become increasingly common possessions among the middle classes, signalling the first ripples of consumerism; morally, too, the free-loving Hippie culture of the 1960s had swept in among youth in the large metros, causing rebellion against authority, drugs and sexual licentiousness to start upsetting the traditional social mores.
The turbulent ’70s is the setting of this novel by Nayana Currimbhoy, the first by the New York-based writer who has hitherto freelanced for interiors and design magazines, besides penning a children’s biography of Indira Gandhi. Currimbhoy works out the clash of worlds, the slow unravelling of a way of life through a lesbian affair between Charulata Apte, 21-year-old Maharashtrian Brahmin teacher of English in classes IX and X at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, a residential all-girls school in Panchagani, and Moira Prince, the British sports teacher. Currimbhoy works with obvious stereotypes, so Charulata is thin and small and shy, while Prince, the masculine-sounding name she’s known by everywhere, is “compact, muscular”, has hair cropped short, wears khakhi jodhpurs and tall boots, etc. No prizes for guessing then that it is Prince who seduces Charulata.
But setting aside the clichéd characterisation, Currimbhoy builds up the affair with close attention to social and psychological reality, tracing the trajectory of Charulata’s feelings from the initial, somewhat repulsed fascination, to sexual frisson, the first kiss leading to a carnal relationship, the breakdown of Charulata’s deeply-ingrained social conditioning, the gradual dismantling of her “moral” guard signalled by her starting to smoke pot in the company of a set of Hippie friends in Panchagani, then a cigarette and finally drinking alcohol.
The lesbian affair is, however, not the core of the novel — the mystery of Prince’s death is. Was she pushed of the edge of the cliff by Miss Nelson, the pious principal of the school who turns out to be Prince’s natural mother, or did Miss Raswani, the mad-as-a-hatter Hindi teacher, do it? Currimbhoy plots the novel like an old-fashioned murder mystery — Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books come to mind — with the needle of suspicion falling now on this character and now on that, and a large cast of seemingly incidental characters who intrude with their own stories, sometimes contributing to the central plot and sometimes just muddying the waters.
Currimbhoy is very good at laying out setting. Her small-town Panchagani is idyllic and placid at first but, as the reader soon discovers, teeming underneath with oddball characters, malevolent passions and scandalous goings-on. But the best part of this novel is the way Currimbhoy builds up the fish-bowl milieu of an old-world, all-girls boarding school. What seems at first a replica of the naive world of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series, full of scrapes, pranks and Rule Breakers Clubs, gets progressively sinister as Currimbhoy adds touches of darkness, of deliberate cruelty and budding sexuality repressed unkindly.
It clearly comes from personal experience, since Currimbhoy herself attended boarding school in this small town in the Sahyadri Mountains (incidentally, Panchagani has a Kimmins High School, a girls’ school started by Christian missionaries back in 1898). Only a boarding-school insider would know of something as exquisitely kinky as the Elastic Band Rule, of girls being made to snap the elastic band of their bloomers against the bare skin of their legs in order to prove that they came down to exactly six inches above the knee. Or that hysterically funny sequence where Charulata chances upon two girls wearing two large cups of a brassiere on their heads as they bounce on their haunches towards a stretched skipping rope. The girls had been given the task of drying the garment, which belonged to their incredibly big-busted prefect, by holding it over a sigri (this was how clothes were dried in the school during the long Panchagani monsoons), when they decided to start playing “monsoon swimming”, wearing the brassiere cups on their heads as swimming caps.
A satisfying yarn in almost all ways, the only downside of this novel is its length. The interminable third section, which describes the mystery of the Hindi teacher’s disappearance and Charulata’s ham-handed attempts at playing detective, could have been shortened and the plot would have been tighter. On the other hand, nearly 500 pages is just right for a longish train journey.
MISS TIMMINS’ SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
491 pages; Rs 399