Miss Timmins' School for Girls

Miss Timmins' School for Girls

2.7 14
by Nayana Currimbhoy
     
 

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“An irresistible novel that hurls forward at breathtaking speed toward an unpredictable climax.”
—Thrity Umrigar, bestselling author of The Space Between Us

“Beautifully written, atmospheric…contains entire worlds. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love

…  See more details below

Overview

“An irresistible novel that hurls forward at breathtaking speed toward an unpredictable climax.”
—Thrity Umrigar, bestselling author of The Space Between Us

“Beautifully written, atmospheric…contains entire worlds. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is the truly dazzling debut of a major novelist, Nayana Currimbhoy. Set in India during the monsoon of 1974, it tells the story of a conventional young girl who leaves her cloistered small town home to teach at a remote boarding school run by British Missionaries. Part coming-of-age novel, part suspenseful murder mystery, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is a brilliant evocation of a colorful time and place—India during the love, drug, and rock ’n’ roll era—complete with the sights, sounds, and music of the period seamlessly woven into the page-turning tale.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Currimbhoy's fiction debut is an absorbing atmospheric thriller set at a girl's boarding school in Panchgani, India. In 1974, Charu Apte is an impressionable 21-year-old new to teaching. Instead of conforming to the school's strict religious guidelines, she finds herself drawn to a fellow teacher, and renegade, Moira Prince, a larger than life British woman with plenty of secrets and a puzzling relationship with the school's administration. Charu and Moira begin a passionate affair, but one night during monsoon season, in a mountainous outlying area known as "table-land," Moira is murdered. The tragedy divides the town along an "English fault line" and fills the school with rumors of burning jealousy, salacious lesbian affairs, and vendettas. As arrests are made, Charu and some of the schoolgirls work to get to the bottom of what happened. Almost everyone is a suspect, including Charu, in Currimbhoy's gripping tale. (July)
Booklist
“The intimate portrait the novel offers of India at this specific point in its history is compelling, as is the dramatic relationship between Charu and the deeply troubled Moira.”
National Geographic Traveler
“A vivid debut novel.”
Thrity Umrigar
“An irresistible novel that hurls forward at breathtaking speed toward an unpredictable climax.”
Gary Shteyngart
“Beautifully written, atmospheric and very funny. Ms. Currimbhoy’s debut novel contains entire worlds. I couldn’t put it down.”
Katrina Kittle
“Exotic, mysterious, and haunting, MISS TIMMINS’ SCHOOL FOR GIRLS kept me up late for some delicious, spooky reading nights. I adored this book.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061997747
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
06/21/2011
Edition description:
Original
Pages:
512
Sales rank:
752,291
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

Miss Timmins' School for Girls

A Novel
By Nayana Currimbhoy

Harper Paperbacks

Copyright © 2011 Nayana Currimbhoy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061997747


Chapter One

In 1974, just three weeks before my twenty-first birthday,
I left my family and traveled halfway across India to teach
English and literature at Miss Timmins' School for Girls. The
school was in Panchgani, an eight-hour drive from Bombay in
those days.
My father and I joined the school party at Poona Station.
Two train carriages carrying the banners Miss Timmins' School
for Girls Traveling Party had departed at dawn from Bombay and
deposited the girls at Poona Station by noon. We had been
instructed to meet them in the First Class Ladies' Waiting Room,
where we found the girls in blue-checked dresses eating sandwiches
and boiled eggs from brown paper bags. Their dresses
were flared from the waist, like umbrellas. Bananas were being
passed around. We were to go the rest of the way up the mountains
by road. After lunch, the girls were lined up and stuffed
into three red and yellow buses. Baba and I were told to get
into the middle bus by a dark lady in a white sari, no doubt a
teacher.
Baba was the only male on the bus. We sat apart, he and I,
like lepers on the last, bumpy bench. The girls looked back
curiously from time to time. The bus had a sullen air as it grunted
and groaned up the foothills outside Poona. Some girls were
sniffling. They seemed to be feeling as rough and as raw as I
was.
As we went deeper and higher into the mountains, up the
narrow winding road, the sunlight became slanted, and the air
thin and clean. The girls revived and started singing. Baba and
I sat quiet and erect, I near the window. Eventually the girls
swung into their school song.
High upon the mountains
Away from city clamor
By graceful trees surrounded
There stands our own dear school
On the bench beside us sat two sisters with short brown
hair, twins I thought. They sang loudly and soulfully, and completely
out of tune. Baba looked at me and we exchanged a brief
smile. We were both thinking of Ayi.
We revel in the leisure
The studies, sports, and fun
The beauty of the hillside
The breezes, rain, and sun
I knew the words by heart. I had spent a large part of that
summer in my room with the school prospectus, imagining
myself in its blurred black-and-white photos. A certain Miss
Timmins had founded the school in 1901 for the daughters of
British civil servants whose health was too delicate for the heat
of the plains. In those days, the girls were carried up the mountains
in chairs by natives, a journey that took two weeks. After
the British left in 1947, the school had tottered for a time but
then come into its own. Now the girls were Indian, and came
from Bombay and Kerala and Aden and Africa and from sugar
estates along the Deccan Plateau to get the right kind of
English education.
The song lurched to its high finale with the girls swaying as
the bus twisted up the last mountain.
So here's to Timmins
To dear old Ti-im-mins
May we be always true
I was close to tears. It just all seemed so silly. This was not
a part of the dream. I wanted to be a Bombay girl, with
bell bottom pants and foreign perfume floating in the breeze behind
me. I wanted to be a Bombay girl, with no stain on my face.
I had broached the idea the day I got my B.A. results. "I want
to go to Bombay," I said at dinner, still basking in the glory of
my First Class. "To teach in a college."
I had expected dismay and shock. Instead, a meaningful
glance passed between my parents.
"Well, what's wrong with Indore? Why don't you teach
here, in Indore?" said Ayi.
"For a little while," said Baba.
I saw then that they had spoken the truth between them,
man and wife: It would be very difficult, perhaps even impossible,-
they had agreed, staring up at the whirring fan with their
heads on identical hard pillows, to find a good boy for their
only child. Charu should get a job. Be independent. But they
had imagined me at home, with them. I soon convinced them
they needed to let me go. They too must have known it deep
down. It was time to let me go.
Bombay was out of the question. "We have no real relatives
there," said Baba firmly, and Baba was not so often firm.
And so they settled upon a cloistered school where I
could be tethered, and perhaps even tended. Miss Timmins'
School for Girls, run by British missionaries. Indian teachers
were allowed, but only Protestant Christians. The school
was making an exception for me because cousins from the
shiny branch of my family had studied in Timmins for many
years. No doubt the missionaries had been assured that I was
a conservative, well-brought-up girl. I myself could not
dispute that.
It had seemed a good step. Closer to Bombay than my tight
middle-class world. Now, though, I had the feeling I had veered
in the wrong direction. I wanted to hold Baba's hand and say,
"Let's run back home."
But Baba sat beside me impassive in his public face, his
trousers creased, his back ramrod straight. I looked out of the
window and let the wind unfurl my hair. Baba, the fountain
of all facts, had told me that it rained over two hundred inches
during the monsoons in Panchgani.
"You should expect the current soon, around the second of
June. I will keep you informed of its progress," he assured me
as the bus puffed past a yellow signboard that said Welcome to
Panchgani, the Kashmir of Maharashtra alongside poorly painted
mountain ranges.
The road to the school was a narrow one, lined with tall
trees that shook silver leaves in the wind. "The British planted
silver oaks in the early 1900s," said Baba. He always spurted
more facts when he was uncomfortable. Ten minutes later, we
turned in to the school.
I hold it in my mind still, the way I saw the school on that
first day. A red castle with two towers, rising from red mud.
The bus shuddered to a stop in a compound with a large banyan
tree in the center. Girls pranced around the benches between
the roots, chattering like birds.
"The iron in the water is very healthy. You will soon have
rosy cheeks," said Baba, picking up a pinch of the dry red mud.
Later, it was the water that we blamed for all the madness and
chaos of that monsoon—water from deep old wells that dug
into the gut of the ancient mountains.
The principal came towards us, smiling. "Ah, you must
be Miss Charulata Apte. Welcome to Timmins," she said, her
hands outstretched towards us.
Miss Nelson, a British woman with tight brown curls, wore
a blue-and-red-striped dress and a two-string pearl necklace.
She walked erect. Her smile was grave and her eyes were large
and round through her thick glasses.
I am not sure if I even noticed the purse on that first day. But
now, of course, it is impossible to imagine her without it. Miss
Nelson always carried a flat white purse. No one had ever seen
Miss Nelson without her purse. The girls claimed that she took
it to the bathroom with her. They said she kept inside it photos
of a lover who jilted her at the altar. In England, of course.
The outrageous Miss Prince, who delighted in shocking the
staid school, claimed that the saintly principal collected
pornographic pictures of young girls. "Every night, she prays to the
Lord to help her burn them. But the next morning, she cannot. So
she carries them around another day, afraid to die," she said in the
staff room one day as all the teachers pretended not to hear her.
No one had ever seen Miss Nelson open the steel clasp of
her purse.
Miss Nelson lifted a thick green curtain to a room lined
with pink wicker sofas. "Do sit down and have a cup of tea in
the staff room. I will greet the little ones and be back to show
you around," she said. The little girls, some of them seemed to
be four or five, were tumbling down from the last bus.
Then Miss Nelson turned to reveal the largest bottom I had
ever seen. It started at the waist, just below the belt, and seemed
to be strapped onto her like a shelf, like a pillow a clown might
wear. It joggled and jiggled along quite unaware of her front,
and completed a turn a split second after she did. When she
walked towards you she was an ice queen, a model of decorum
and dignity. But from behind, as she waddled around among
the children like a mother hen, I could just see the feathers
sticking out of her bottom.
I felt, suddenly, that she might understand me. I thought
that she too might have spent hours agonizing about when to
enter, and when to leave, a room. She was two-sided, like me.
But she was the light, I thought. She could enter straight and
strong.
I, I am the night. I prefer people to see me first from behind.
My hair is rain. It is thick and black and long, and it swings on
my hips like music. My hair is my own private beat as I walk
to school, to college, to family dinners, as I walk behind my
mother, carrying her vegetables and fish.
I often combed my hair drooping over my cheeks in one
low plait. I hoped to cover the red blot on the right side of my
face, even just a little. Specially at weddings and parties, when
the old aunts gathered. "Oh, no, Shalini," they wailed as my
mother's shining face closed up. "What happened to her? Oh,
she was so fresh, like a cucumber, when she was small. Now
how will you get the poor thing married?"
My mother always tried to shield me; she would give me a
pat, or a pleading look, which hurt even more. I hurt for me,
and for her, having to bear us both, her husband and her daughter,
like weights upon her back. For we both had our blots, he
and I.
My ayi rarely hugged me; we were not a hugging family.
She put all her love into my hair. She massaged my scalp and
oiled it with the special homemade coconut oil. She coiled it
around her hand, shining in the sun like a serpent before she
plaited it. She wove bright and beautiful ribbons into my hair,
and tied them in big bows that I wore through the day like
medals. She told me stories, mainly from her endless legend
store. And she would weave it all into my hair.
"This mark makes you special. Now only those who can
really see inside can know what a beautiful girl you are," she
would say, tilting my chin up so she could get the parting
straight down the middle. "It is your special mark, maybe from
your last life. It is a signal for the right man. Now don't forget
your Ayi-Baba when you go off to the palace with your prince,"
she teased, sending me out laughing to meet the world. Later,
when I started wearing flowers instead of bows, Ayi paid the
doorman's son five rupees a month to bring gajras and fresh
flowers every morning at seven.
Miss Nelson put her purse arm comfortingly around me
and assured my father that they would take good care of me.
"We are a family here," she said.
The school was terraced down a hillside. Behind the stern
gothic face, it fanned out into long low buildings with red tin
roofs. Miss Nelson led us down wide covered corridors and
staircases, through the school to the hospital building. I was
hypnotized by her jiggling bottom.
"Most of our younger teachers are in Sunbeam, a separate
house behind the bazaar, but we thought we would keep
Charul-a-a-ta-a here with us," Miss Nelson told my father. Then
she turned to me, and her eyes seemed to twinkle a little. "We
can't have your parents worrying, now, can we?" she said.
She never got to calling me Charu, like everyone else. And
until the end, she did not change the drawn out la-ata with the
very wrong t.
The hospital was at the bottom corner of the school, set at
right angles to the rest of the buildings. It contained about ten
narrow beds with white counterpanes and painted white metal
lockers. There were two smaller rooms for infectious cases. In
the front was a dispensary. Out to the right, two rooms, one for
the nurse, and the other, to my horror, was to be for me.
Baba, being a man, could not stay in the school, and had
decided to go back to Poona right away. He looked at me longingly,
passed his hand over my head, and left. We promised
each other a letter every week. I went back to my room and sat
on the narrow spring bed. The room had a desk, a lamp, an upright
chair, and a small lumpy sofa covered in the same bright
pink fabric as the staff room. There was one window facing
some trees and dried bushes. It smelled of disinfectant. I felt
dislocated from everything I had ever known. I did not have
the strength to get up and unpack. I just sat on the bed, staring
at the peeling wall, until it was time to go to dinner.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Miss Timmins' School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy Copyright © 2011 by Nayana Currimbhoy. Excerpted by permission of Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Katrina Kittle
“Exotic, mysterious, and haunting, MISS TIMMINS’ SCHOOL FOR GIRLS kept me up late for some delicious, spooky reading nights. I adored this book.”
Thrity Umrigar
“An irresistible novel that hurls forward at breathtaking speed toward an unpredictable climax.”
Gary Shteyngart
“Beautifully written, atmospheric and very funny. Ms. Currimbhoy’s debut novel contains entire worlds. I couldn’t put it down.”

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