Nayana Currimbhoy's Miss Timmins' School for Girls mixes the new with the old in a strange brew that is satisfying and delicious. Miss Timmins' School for Girls, in Panchgani, India, is one of the last outposts of the British Empire.
In the mid-1970s, the school is hanging on by a thread, run by a handful of elderly English and Scottish missionaries who operate the place as if Queen Victoria is still on the throne and regard it as their duty to educate affluent Indian girls in the ways of tea and Shakespeare. Every outmoded cliché of British boarding school life is passionately embraced at Miss Timmins', down to random inspections of the girls' clothing to make sure they are wearing the requisite elasticized cotton knickers instead of the dreaded bikini underpants.
Into this little closed ecosystem enter two young teachers, Miss Apte (Charu) and Miss Prince (Pin), who stir things up with their explorations of all things '70s (you know, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll). The contrast between the hidebound traditions of Miss Timmins and the hashish and illicit love affairs that Charu and Pin indulge in makes for a jarring exploration of a changing society.
Both Charu (who is Indian) and Pin (English) have back stories that Currimbhoy explores in depth. And fairly soon these young women are involved in a tragedy that resonates through the school and eventually through the entire village of Panchgani, with consequences that last for many years. Thus, Miss Timmins' School for Girls is also part coming-of-age novel and part thriller, with a side dish of culture clash to spice things up.
This was yet another random library find for me. Currimbhoy worked as a journalist for years, but this is her first published fiction. It's as good as anything written by the better-known Indian writers who have emerged in recent years to explore postcolonial contradictions and Indian identity.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.