<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> In 1974, just three weeks before my twenty-first birthday, <br> I left my family and traveled halfway across India to teach <br> English and literature at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls. The <br> school was in Panchgani, an eight-hour drive from Bombay in <br> those days.<br> My father and I joined the school party at Poona Station. <br> Two train carriages carrying the banners Miss Timmins’ School <br> for Girls Traveling Party had departed at dawn from Bombay and <br> deposited the girls at Poona Station by noon. We had been <br> instructed to meet them in the First Class Ladies’ Waiting Room, <br> where we found the girls in blue-checked dresses eating sandwiches<br> and boiled eggs from brown paper bags. Their dresses <br> were flared from the waist, like umbrellas. Bananas were being <br> passed around. We were to go the rest of the way up the mountains<br> by road. After lunch, the girls were lined up and stuffed <br> into three red and yellow buses. Baba and I were told to get <br> into the middle bus by a dark lady in a white sari, no doubt a <br> teacher.<br> Baba was the only male on the bus. We sat apart, he and I, <br> like lepers on the last, bumpy bench. The girls looked back <br> curiously from time to time. The bus had a sullen air as it grunted <br> and groaned up the foothills outside Poona. Some girls were <br> sniffling. They seemed to be feeling as rough and as raw as I <br> was.<br> As we went deeper and higher into the mountains, up the <br> narrow winding road, the sunlight became slanted, and the air <br> thin and clean. The girls revived and started singing. Baba and <br> I sat quiet and erect, I near the window. Eventually the girls <br> swung into their school song.<br> High upon the mountains<br> Away from city clamor<br> By graceful trees surrounded<br> There stands our own dear school<br> On the bench beside us sat two sisters with short brown <br> hair, twins I thought. They sang loudly and soulfully, and completely<br> out of tune. Baba looked at me and we exchanged a brief <br> smile. We were both thinking of Ayi.<br> We revel in the leisure<br> The studies, sports, and fun<br> The beauty of the hillside<br> The breezes, rain, and sun<br> I knew the words by heart. I had spent a large part of that <br> summer in my room with the school prospectus, imagining <br> myself in its blurred black-and-white photos. A certain Miss <br> Timmins had founded the school in 1901 for the daughters of <br> British civil servants whose health was too delicate for the heat <br> of the plains. In those days, the girls were carried up the mountains<br> in chairs by natives, a journey that took two weeks. After <br> the British left in 1947, the school had tottered for a time but <br> then come into its own. Now the girls were Indian, and came <br> from Bombay and Kerala and Aden and Africa and from sugar <br> estates along the Deccan Plateau to get the right kind of <br> English education.<br> The song lurched to its high finale with the girls swaying as <br> the bus twisted up the last mountain.<br> So here’s to Timmins<br> To dear old Ti-im-mins<br> May we be always true<br> I was close to tears. It just all seemed so silly. This was not <br> a part of the dream. I wanted to be a Bombay girl, with <br> bell bottom pants and foreign perfume floating in the breeze behind <br> me. I wanted to be a Bombay girl, with no stain on my face.<br> I had broached the idea the day I got my B.A. results. “I want <br> to go to Bombay,” I said at dinner, still basking in the glory of <br> my First Class. “To teach in a college.”<br> I had expected dismay and shock. Instead, a meaningful <br> glance passed between my parents.<br> “Well, what’s wrong with Indore? Why don’t you teach <br> here, in Indore?” said Ayi.<br> “For a little while,” said Baba.<br> I saw then that they had spoken the truth between them, <br> man and wife: It would be very difficult, perhaps even impossible,-<br> they had agreed, staring up at the whirring fan with their <br> heads on identical hard pillows, to find a good boy for their <br> only child. Charu should get a job. Be independent. But they <br> had imagined me at home, with them. I soon convinced them <br> they needed to let me go. They too must have known it deep <br> down. It was time to let me go.<br> Bombay was out of the question. “We have no real relatives <br> there,” said Baba firmly, and Baba was not so often firm.<br> And so they settled upon a cloistered school where I <br> could be tethered, and perhaps even tended. Miss Timmins’ <br> School for Girls, run by British missionaries. Indian teachers<br> were allowed, but only Protestant Christians. The school <br> was making an exception for me because cousins from the <br> shiny branch of my family had studied in Timmins for many <br> years. No doubt the missionaries had been assured that I was <br> a conservative, well-brought-up girl. I myself could not <br> dispute that.<br> It had seemed a good step. Closer to Bombay than my tight <br> middle-class world. Now, though, I had the feeling I had veered <br> in the wrong direction. I wanted to hold Baba’s hand and say, <br> “Let’s run back home.”<br> But Baba sat beside me impassive in his public face, his <br> trousers creased, his back ramrod straight. I looked out of the <br> window and let the wind unfurl my hair. Baba, the fountain <br> of all facts, had told me that it rained over two hundred inches <br> during the monsoons in Panchgani.<br> “You should expect the current soon, around the second of <br> June. I will keep you informed of its progress,” he assured me <br> as the bus puffed past a yellow signboard that said Welcome to <br> Panchgani, the Kashmir of Maharashtra alongside poorly painted <br> mountain ranges.<br> The road to the school was a narrow one, lined with tall <br> trees that shook silver leaves in the wind. “The British planted <br> silver oaks in the early 1900s,” said Baba. He always spurted <br> more facts when he was uncomfortable. Ten minutes later, we <br> turned in to the school.<br> I hold it in my mind still, the way I saw the school on that <br> first day. A red castle with two towers, rising from red mud. <br> The bus shuddered to a stop in a compound with a large banyan <br> tree in the center. Girls pranced around the benches between <br> the roots, chattering like birds.<br> “The iron in the water is very healthy. You will soon have <br> rosy cheeks,” said Baba, picking up a pinch of the dry red mud. <br> Later, it was the water that we blamed for all the madness and <br> chaos of that monsoon—water from deep old wells that dug <br> into the gut of the ancient mountains.<br> The principal came towards us, smiling. “Ah, you must <br> be Miss Charulata Apte. Welcome to Timmins,” she said, her <br> hands outstretched towards us.<br> Miss Nelson, a British woman with tight brown curls, wore <br> a blue-and-red-striped dress and a two-string pearl necklace. <br> She walked erect. Her smile was grave and her eyes were large <br> and round through her thick glasses.<br> I am not sure if I even noticed the purse on that first day. But <br> now, of course, it is impossible to imagine her without it. Miss <br> Nelson always carried a flat white purse. No one had ever seen <br> Miss Nelson without her purse. The girls claimed that she took <br> it to the bathroom with her. They said she kept inside it photos <br> of a lover who jilted her at the altar. In England, of course.<br> The outrageous Miss Prince, who delighted in shocking the <br> staid school, claimed that the saintly principal collected <br> pornographic pictures of young girls. “Every night, she prays to the <br> Lord to help her burn them. But the next morning, she cannot. So <br> she carries them around another day, afraid to die,” she said in the <br> staff room one day as all the teachers pretended not to hear her.<br> No one had ever seen Miss Nelson open the steel clasp of <br> her purse.<br> Miss Nelson lifted a thick green curtain to a room lined <br> with pink wicker sofas. “Do sit down and have a cup of tea in <br> the staff room. I will greet the little ones and be back to show <br> you around,” she said. The little girls, some of them seemed to <br> be four or five, were tumbling down from the last bus.<br> Then Miss Nelson turned to reveal the largest bottom I had <br> ever seen. It started at the waist, just below the belt, and seemed <br> to be strapped onto her like a shelf, like a pillow a clown might <br> wear. It joggled and jiggled along quite unaware of her front, <br> and completed a turn a split second after she did. When she <br> walked towards you she was an ice queen, a model of decorum <br> and dignity. But from behind, as she waddled around among <br> the children like a mother hen, I could just see the feathers <br> sticking out of her bottom.<br> I felt, suddenly, that she might understand me. I thought <br> that she too might have spent hours agonizing about when to <br> enter, and when to leave, a room. She was two-sided, like me. <br> But she was the light, I thought. She could enter straight and <br> strong.<br> I, I am the night. I prefer people to see me first from behind. <br> My hair is rain. It is thick and black and long, and it swings on <br> my hips like music. My hair is my own private beat as I walk <br> to school, to college, to family dinners, as I walk behind my <br> mother, carrying her vegetables and fish.<br> I often combed my hair drooping over my cheeks in one <br> low plait. I hoped to cover the red blot on the right side of my <br> face, even just a little. Specially at weddings and parties, when <br> the old aunts gathered. “Oh, no, Shalini,” they wailed as my <br> mother’s shining face closed up. “What happened to her? Oh, <br> she was so fresh, like a cucumber, when she was small. Now <br> how will you get the poor thing married?”<br> My mother always tried to shield me; she would give me a <br> pat, or a pleading look, which hurt even more. I hurt for me, <br> and for her, having to bear us both, her husband and her daughter,<br> like weights upon her back. For we both had our blots, he <br> and I.<br> My ayi rarely hugged me; we were not a hugging family. <br> She put all her love into my hair. She massaged my scalp and <br> oiled it with the special homemade coconut oil. She coiled it <br> around her hand, shining in the sun like a serpent before she <br> plaited it. She wove bright and beautiful ribbons into my hair, <br> and tied them in big bows that I wore through the day like <br> medals. She told me stories, mainly from her endless legend <br> store. And she would weave it all into my hair.<br> “This mark makes you special. Now only those who can <br> really see inside can know what a beautiful girl you are,” she <br> would say, tilting my chin up so she could get the parting <br> straight down the middle. “It is your special mark, maybe from <br> your last life. It is a signal for the right man. Now don’t forget <br> your Ayi-Baba when you go off to the palace with your prince,” <br> she teased, sending me out laughing to meet the world. Later, <br> when I started wearing flowers instead of bows, Ayi paid the <br> doorman’s son five rupees a month to bring gajras and fresh <br> flowers every morning at seven.<br> Miss Nelson put her purse arm comfortingly around me <br> and assured my father that they would take good care of me. <br> “We are a family here,” she said.<br> The school was terraced down a hillside. Behind the stern <br> gothic face, it fanned out into long low buildings with red tin <br> roofs. Miss Nelson led us down wide covered corridors and <br> staircases, through the school to the hospital building. I was <br> hypnotized by her jiggling bottom.<br> “Most of our younger teachers are in Sunbeam, a separate<br> house behind the bazaar, but we thought we would keep <br> Charul-a-a-ta-a here with us,” Miss Nelson told my father. Then <br> she turned to me, and her eyes seemed to twinkle a little. “We <br> can’t have your parents worrying, now, can we?” she said.<br> She never got to calling me Charu, like everyone else. And <br> until the end, she did not change the drawn out la-ata with the <br> very wrong t.<br> The hospital was at the bottom corner of the school, set at <br> right angles to the rest of the buildings. It contained about ten <br> narrow beds with white counterpanes and painted white metal <br> lockers. There were two smaller rooms for infectious cases. In <br> the front was a dispensary. Out to the right, two rooms, one for <br> the nurse, and the other, to my horror, was to be for me.<br> Baba, being a man, could not stay in the school, and had <br> decided to go back to Poona right away. He looked at me longingly,<br> passed his hand over my head, and left. We promised <br> each other a letter every week. I went back to my room and sat <br> on the narrow spring bed. The room had a desk, a lamp, an upright<br> chair, and a small lumpy sofa covered in the same bright <br> pink fabric as the staff room. There was one window facing <br> some trees and dried bushes. It smelled of disinfectant. I felt <br> dislocated from everything I had ever known. I did not have <br> the strength to get up and unpack. I just sat on the bed, staring <br> at the peeling wall, until it was time to go to dinner. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Miss Timmins’ School for Girls</b> by <b>Nayana Currimbhoy</b> 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.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.