Miss Nelson, the Principal of the Timmins School, Hindi teacher Ms. Usha Raswani, English Teacher Charulata Apte, sports teacher Moira Prince were all there. Merch was there. Nandita, Akila and Ramona were there. Three or four boys from another boarding school were there. Shanker, the handyman of the school was there. Probably there was a ghost or two doing the rounds. The only person who was not there was Inspector Wagle (Woggle), who had been in Panchgani for 18 years and was justifiably proud of the fact that no murder or serious crime had occurred at the quiet hill station under his watch. All that, of course, changed on that fateful night in Panchgani, when the rains stopped and the full moon shone brightly in the inky sky.
This is the scenario that Nayana Currimbhoy creates in her debut novel, ‘Miss Timmins’ School for Girls’, published by Harper Collins (PP: 496; Price Rs 399). As I talk to her about her work, sitting in her comfortable flat at Napean Sea Road in Mumbai, Nayana acknowledges her debt to Agatha Christie.
According to her, in an Agatha Christie thriller, all the suspects have to be present at the scene of the crime. If the culprit is somewhere outside this pool of suspects then that is regarded as cheating.
Writing within the same genre, Nayana takes the reader to Timmins’ school, the centre of her could-be-murder/could-be-suicide mystery. The story-teller keeps you on the edge of your chair for the 500 pages it takes her to resolve the death of Moira Prince, the sports teacher, who fell ‘that night’ and landed at the bottom of a cliff. But how did she fall, or was she pushed? Had her scandalous life finally caught up with her? Was it done out of guilt or for revenge? But, wait, Nayana’s story is not just another murder mystery. There is a twist; it’s also a ghost story. There is madness and there is mayhem. There is a planchette used to call spirits. There is a scream heard by some girls and not heard by others.
When I met up with New York based Nayana recently when she was on a visit to her home town of Mumbai, I asked her a direct question: ‘Was Moira based on someone real?’ She smiles and says: “When I was at school at Kimmins in Panchgani, there were rumours that a British sports teacher had kissed a young Indian teacher behind a pink curtain in the staff room. Whenever I saw her I used to wonder if this was true. That’s when I thought to myself, a rumour can become the basis of a novel – after all, it’s fiction.”
So at the heart of this novel lies an intensely imagined affair between Moira Prince and Charulata Apte, the young English teacher who is teaching her wards William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Incidentally, Macbeth hovers over this book like Banquo’s ghost.
When I talk to Nayana about the Macbeth influence her face lights up with remembrance: “I had a wonderful English teacher. She was called Miss Timmins, who taught us girls Macbeth and it came alive,” she says.
Besides Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Christie, ‘Miss Timmins’ School for Girls’ also comes as a strong reminder of Donna Tartt’s famous murder mystery, ‘The Secret History’, that’s based on a campus in New England where a group of students and a professor live out their fantasy. Shocking and brilliant, ‘The Secret History’ has remained with me and I found a distant echo of it in Nayana’s book as well. An isolated school campus seems to make an ideal backdrop for murder, not only because of its isolation but because schools and colleges are about order and murder is about disorder.
When I ask Nayana if she is familiar with ‘The Secret History’, she tells me that it had been suggested to her by one of her readers whom she had given the novel for feedback and comments. “I read it and enjoyed the book,” she says.
Of course, while I am happy that her writing reminds me of one of my favourite murder mystery writers, I sincerely hoped that her career doesn’t go Tartt’s way. After the pyrotechnics of ‘The Secret History’, her second novel, ‘The Little Friend’ was a huge disappointment.
Nayana’s journey has been different and interesting – something that can provide continuous inspiration for some great plots. She went to New York as a young professional. Her close friend on the Upper East Side, Angu Jhaveri and she started out together. She was working for News India, a weekly Indian newspaper, and writing a column called ‘People, Places and Things’. She met her future husband while pursuing a story on flying sculptures. ‘Tariq (my future husband) was flying a kite in a competition at Central Park. But by the time I and Angu reached, his kite had flown off and months of effort had gone to waste. He was distraught but he seemed glad to see us and invited us to a party at Soho that night. Then we met when the article was ready. We’ve been together since,’ she smiles. Tariq is an award winning architect today.
For ‘Miss Timmins’ School for Girls’, Nayana has mined her school experiences to great advantage. She calls her childhood bizarre, and when I ask her why that is the case, she describes what the life of a six year old girl in a boarding school is like. Her readers can get a taste of it in her narrative. There are the three-tumbler baths, there’s Scottish dancing – in kilts no less – in the India of the 1970s, and, adding to the madness, there’s even DDT being put in the hair to kill lice. Nayana also wonderfully re-creates Panchgani, a semi-hill station a couple of hours from Mumbai, with its incessant rains and electricity outages.
But at the heart of the story that Nayana relates is Charulata Apte, 21, the Hindu English teacher from Indore, who found her feet in the school when Moira Prince lost her footing. In many ways,
‘Miss Timmins’ School for Girls’ is a coming-of-age tale, set in the rock ‘n’ roll Seventies. Enjoy.
(Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy, Published by Harper Collins, PP: 496; Price Rs 399)