Miss Raswani taught Hindi in an archaic and rigid manner. Everything went in a two-week cycle. On Monday, she read a chapter aloud standing in front of the teacher’s table. Then she made the class read it in turns, a paragraph at a time. For Hindi night study we had to learn the first half of the chapter by heart. On Tuesday Raswani would sit ramrod straight at the desk and eye us sternly. “Punita Parikh, first paragraph,” she would bark, and Punita would have to stand up and recite it. Wednesday, it was the second half. Thursday the whole chapter once more. Friday was the test. We had to sit down and write the whole chapter. There was no wavering from the text, no need for explanations. This was how the Vedas must have been taught to Brahmin boys in Benares a thousand years ago, and Miss Raswani saw no need to deviate.
I thought this novel would be about teaching. About students and girls, and teachers and principals. In a way, it was. But, it was about much more than that.
There was our heroine, Charulata Apte, who suffered from a facial birthmark she called her ‘blot’. Turning red and itchy, especially when faced with distress, it was something which acted as a barometer for her emotional well-being. Which could not be called happy under even the best of conditions.
For her father shamed the family such that they had to move from relative luxury to an incredibly small apartment where her bedroom was converted from the balcony off of her parents’ bedroom. Her mother suffered internally, and then later acted out her pain in a way which almost took her life. And Charu herself went to teach in Miss Timmins’ School For Girls, in Panchgani, India.
So many complex personalities made up the faculty and staff of that school. Miss Raswani, whose teaching style you read about in the opening quote. Miss Nelson, the principal with an enormous bottom. And Prince, the young English teacher with whom Charu falls in love.
I never expected a lesbian story, nor a murder, but these are two integral parts to the plot. They are slowly revealed as Charu herself grows up; learning is not only for the girls who are students in the school, but for those who lead them as well. For the adults must figure out what to do with the complicated feelings they have as a result of choices made in their youth. And, there is a murder to solve at the very core.