The story is set in St Agnes, a girls’ school in Mumbai. A convent, it’s staffed, as so many once were, by ghostly nuns and teachers whose lives are the subject of fantastic tales spun by their students. The protagonist is 15-year-old Tenral, a brilliant if precocious student in the final year of school. Blessed with an unusually musical ear, she is strongly attracted to, though initially repelled by, her English language teacher, Mrs D’Cruz, nicknamed Alfie. Convinced Mrs D’Cruz once had a torrid romance with a man of this name, quoted by her as the world’s greatest authority on poetry, Tenral sneaks to Rose Cottage, where the teacher lives and secretly listens to her read poetry aloud on Sundays. Tenral’s interest in the teacher’s private life is an obsession the author weaves in beautifully with the adolescent longings of a girl who is strangely detached from her parents’ middle-class life. Alfie introduces her to the magic of language and she is mesmerised.
Swaminathan uses this simple plot to sneak in deftly a mad mother, a shameful rape and a mental breakdown with such lack of sentimentality that it is amazing how the drama of those episodes is preserved. Sample this: "Her bosom was a miracle that had defied the scientific curiosity of generations of Agnesians.... We imagined them when she undressed—they would spring apart with a centrifugal bounce."
I have never read anything by this author but was immediately struck by the startling quality of her writing. Swaminathan tells the story of an adolescent girl’s coming of age with a stunning mastery over the plot as well as haunting use of language and image. This is an author who needs showcasing but whether Penguin will do it remains to be seen.