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Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Lilting Murder Mystery in a Girls' Boarding School

India edition (left)
US edition (bottom)

“All my life green chutney sandwiches have stood for hope,” proclaims Charulata Apte, the central heroine of Nayana Currimbhoy’s Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, the mystery thriller that makes a prominent debut in USA and is on bestseller lists in India this month.
CUT TO the “Kashmir of Maharashtra” in monsoon and mist soaked Panchgani. Then, if Kashmir is the Switzerland of India, it isn’t difficult to imagine being in the Alps while in Panchagini, rationalizes the 20 year old schoolteacher Charu in the novel.
When Charu Apte (who gets nicknamed APT by her students), leaves her family abode from a Brahmin middle class household in conservative Indore, to move to Panchgani to teach Shakespeare, the cultural shock is apparent. More so, because she is teaching at a boarding school that is still an outpost of the British empire that observes quaint traditions and Anglo Saxon rules, even though they are in the Rock and Roll seventies and thirty years after India’s independence!
For those having grown up on a diet of Mallory Towers, Swami & Friends and even Sweet Valley, the growing pains, sexual awakening, friendship, mystery, Bald headed suspects, dark rainy evenings and TUCK will be familiar territory, except these references are mere pivot points that lead off into entirely Gothic and unexplored proportions. This is a social drama and murder mystery!
Miss Timmins' School…lingers like the flavorsome buttery Shrewsbury biscuits the running metaphor throughout the story. Chapter titles lose relevance, as the story seamlessly and soundlessly moves into climax. Mighty ruminations and commentary on sex, taboo, elitism, and the convent bred chauvinism versus Hindu Indian patriarchy within a larger than life storyline offer nuanced characters and unique sketches of the boarding school milieu. Midnight Feast Material!!
Nayana Currimbhoy, the New York based author has indeed churned out one wholesome yarn of a thriller that has love, mystery, gloom and humor in Miss Timmins’ School for Girls.
In Conversation with the Maker of Miss Timmins’ School for Girls
Nayana gets talking with us across the seven seas as she gears up for her Delhi book launch on 11th August. She tells us about her 500-page page-turner that is already riding high on the Indian bestsellers list.
Nayana Currimbhoy
Arundati Dandapani: This is your first novel. What prompted you?
Nayana Currimbhoy: Turning 50 prompted me! All these years, I wrote other things. But In my head I was always stuck with ‘I want to write a novel.’ At 50, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, it’s now or never. And so I started writing at night, after the family was asleep. Then the characters started coming out of the box, I knew they would not go back in again. It took me five years to write.
“She felt soft and crumbly in my arms like a Shrewsbury biscuit”
Me: Why is Miss Timmins’ School for Girls set in Panchgani?
NC: I went to a boarding school in Panchgani, It is a little hill station in the Western Ghats that is shrouded in mist in the monsoons. So, the setting is real. I suppose it was a standard Anglo-Indian boarding school, I suppose. All these little Indian girls doing Scottish Dancing and eating porridge for breakfast. When we were young we took these things for granted. I have now been in New York City since 1981. And have not been back to Panchgani for a large part of it. Looking back, you must admit it was deliciously bizarre.
“In the staff room the teachers talked of the girls, and in the classrooms the girls talked about the teachers. It was the safest and most satisfying of topics.”
Me: The nearly all female cast— is this representative of your experiences, or was it a conscious decision?
NC: It’s purely because it’s set in a boarding school. My heroine is a 21 year old teacher. But I gave Charu a big life outside the school, where she falls into the company of these charming young hippies from Bombay. One of them is Merch the mystery man, who is a central character in the book. And then there is Inspector Wagle, and Shankar.
“A woman could rise to the top in her forties. But only if all the “ifs” fell into place. If she had a good marriage with a strong man, if she had borne a good son, she could be forceful by forty. And if she was clever and political, she could become a matriarch at fifty... for me there was even less hope, i could end up like the spinster aunts with polio and the impoverished widows in white saris living frugally on the outer edge of the family, peeling potatoes and minding the red chillies drying on the roof. Either timid or bitter."
Me: This is a complex thriller: a leisure Thriller, more-than–just-a-crime story. What ingredients did you bring to your craft?
NC: You have hit the nail on the head! I never thought of it in quite that way. I set out to write a thriller, but it became a leisure thriller along the way. Perhaps because it is my first novel, I stopped to smell the roses along the way. I just wanted to tell a good story. To have someone dream in my novel.
Me: A lot of Christianity has been woven into this story, you’ve quoted heavily from the Bible. One of the prime accused keeps saying, it is preferable to “fall in the hands of God, than in the hands of Men.” Why?
NC: I wanted to make it Gothic. Every morning we had Scripture studies. Moreover, the Bible and Shakespeare are such wonderful texts, in a purely literary sense. They are just such good texts for gothic murder mystery. I got into Macbeth and decided to nest the theme of my story to it.
"The inspector dropped his voice a little, so I would understand he was making an off-the-record remark. “It is their own white matter,” he said. “We should not poke our heads into it. “Far white,” I could not resist replying, tilting my head with a winning smile."
Me: Please shed light about the elitism and Anglicism in the seventies of India. How were you affected by this theme?
NC: Actually Panchgani was set up by the British, for the families of civil servants to take respite from the heat of the plains. Anglo Indian education I believe, did harm and well as good. There was, and perhaps still is, an elitism attached to the learning of English that goes beyond the language itself. We have such a deep and rich dance tradition, but in 1974, we were still learning Scottish Dancing. Can’t imagine Bharat Natyam classes at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls!
“There were 4 Anglo Indian staff members in our school. Miss Henderson, Sister Richards, Mrs. Cummimings and Ms De Young, who all ran the home section of the school. They were all descendants of British railway clerks who had married Indians many generations ago and were proud of their blood. Ango-Indians married each other, held on to their British names, and identified with the whites, not the Indians.”
Me: You must be a female Ruskin Bond!! What a typical monsoon story, with adventure, but a lot of strong female characters. Who do you think your style would be most like… or any writer whose style you particularly admire?
NC: I’ve been a reader all through my life. Fiction has got me through all difficult moments in life. I soak up the experience of all the books I read, always. I have enjoyed admired Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and all the great Indian authors. I am also very impressed by Mohsin amid and Aravind Adiga these days. Obscure names, people may not have heard of, but actually inspired my own are Daniyal Meeudin’s first set of short stories. Willa Cather’s My Antonia and A Donna Tarte’s About The Secret Room which really inspired my story.
Me: Two mother-daughter relationships have been exploited to the hilt. There is a lot of intimacy, physicality of mother-child love. How was this intended?
NC: I always saw both characters whose mothers are mentioned as a stark contrast to each other…The good and the bad. Although Charu is a very self-conscious girl, she is always confident about her mother loving her. That is her moral compass. However, the relationship between Prince and her mother is twisted, because of the circumstances, partly due to the character of both these women. I would say that this is one of the reasons why Prince is such a fragile creature.
"I felt sorry for her. Unless she produced some golden sons quite soon, she would remain on the bottom layer of the food chain forever. This was a part of the Hindu Joint Family Law, unwritten but sacrosanct. At its center was the great divide between being a daughter and a daughter-in-law.”
Me: Tell us something about the Forbidden Romance that springs between Charulata Apte, the middle class Brahmin girl from Indore and Prince, the hippie teacher of the hostel… is their sexual awakening a part of the teenage rebellion phase?
NC: When I walk Charu into this school, she is 21 years old, and has just finished college from Indore. She is from a middle class family, and it is 1974. She would be more comfortable walking on a deserted road on a rainy night with a woman than with a man. In her world, you see women holding hands with women, and young boys with their arms around each others’ shoulders. This is done naturally, for comfort, to feel close to your friend. Even with children, the taboo is to touch the opposite sex, not your own. Charu would not know even to suspect that Prince is gay. And then you have this overlay of boarding school rumors. All these young girls isolated by themselves. In our school, there was a rumor that the sports teacher had been seen kissing another new young teacher behind the pink curtain of the staff room. Everything is a rumor in that intense environment. The book is based on that – rumor.
“To have been kissed by a woman on a windy mountaintop was one thing. But for that kiss to have opened up my body like a faultline was another.”
Me: Have there been any negative reactions from factions about the grey shades of Christianity and sexuality in your novel?
NC: Well so far, no. There are those that love it, and those that do not. And that is only fair.
“I had just turned 21 and had never seen anyone’s breasts but my own. My breasts were small and pert, like apples on board, with a little cherry sitting on top, I thought. Through the translucent fabric, the Prince’s breasts looked big as ripe mangoes, with large plum-red nipples stretched wide. I wanted to brush my shoulder against them. But the moment passed me by, The Prince stalked off to her room without a backward glance."
Me: Are there any issues you wanted to highlight in your book?
NC: My main path was the story itself, the coming of age of Charu, against the scaffolding of the murder mystery. Of course issues crop up along the way, and there is love and laughter and tears. I believe a good novel contains an entire world.
For example, I loved Adiga’s White Tiger. It is fair to say that is a statement book, a polemic, and an excellent one. In some sense, I am anti-Adiga. Had I written the novel younger, I probably would have attempted to move from the particular to the general. But for now, I just want to tell a story. I want you to pick up the book and not put it down.
Me: Timmins’ School certainly holds promise as a Film. Do you see it as, maybe something along the lines of the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock?
NC: You mean Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Wier? What a lovely thought. We even have this rock that crushed the marriage party in Panchgani, as in my book!
But for now, I am excited about my second novel, also set in India.
Me: How was your publishing journey?
NC: Like a dream, really. I spent five years writing the book, but I would say I enjoyed every minute of it. And then a friend introduced me to my lovely agent at William Morris in New York. She sold it to Harper Collins. And here I am. I am thrilled that it sold in the U.S. and in India.
Me: How well is Miss Timmins doing?
NC: Quite well, thank you!
Nayana Currimbhoy airs on National Public Radio on the Leonard Lopate show 1 - 1.20 pm on Monday August 8th. She will be on Oprah magazine listed as #4 on the "16 books to watch out for this summer." In India, where the book has been out barely a month, it is already a best-seller and will launch on August 11, in New Delhi!