A plot, be that of a movie, or a novel, which, like a gaudy Bollywood production, has a bit of everything—a hero, a damsel in distress, romance, honor killing, violence, family feud—would make a tawdry creative product, cluttered and messy. Well, it might, in the hands of a dilettante author, or a novice director.
Surprisingly, Helen Simonson’s debut fiction, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” has all of these elements, all stewed into a refined literary curry that tells an unusual love story, between two unlikely soul mates, in the charming, English village of Edgecombe St. Mary.
Major Earnest Pettigrew, a tweedy, retired officer of the British army, begins an intense, but gentlemanly courtship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, an intelligent, bold, and fiery Pakistani Muslim woman, who runs a local mart.
The 68-year-old widower’s mildly reclusive country living gets a pleasant shot of an emotional energy drink when Mrs. Ali arrives at his doorstep to collect newspaper money. Over cups of tea, their extremely private friendship flowers over their mutual passion for books, a loathing of bigotry, and a respect for traditional values.
When their respective families collide—by sheer accident—the latter’s cultural chasm is exposed. The social gap between the major’s son, Roger, a posh investment banker in London, and Mrs. Ali’s nephew, Abdul Wahid, a devout, troubled young man, couldn’t be wider.
Their obvious lack of cordially, is emblematic of the deep-seated xenophobic sentiments that pervade this otherwise perfect white community.
But neither dithers in their resolve to be with one another. At 58, Mrs. Ali is unafraid to elicit the ire of her extended family by her sexual unorthodoxy; neither is the major fearful of ruffling the feathers of many, in his none too ecumenical community.
It’s a testament to the major’s blue-blooded pedigree that he didn’t judge Mrs. Ali by her mere standing in the Edgecombe St. Mary society.
Major Pettigrew, no doubt, is attracted to the beautiful woman that Mrs. Ali is, with a cascade of black hair, chiseled features, and a well-contoured figure, but it’s her inner sophistication, her habit of voracious reading, and progressive outlook that he connects with.
A man of true honor and integrity, his character demonstrates that true patriotism, unlike jingoistic fervor, is accommodating and tolerant of other faiths and ethnicities.
If one loves oneself, one needn’t necessarily have to hate another. The major’s “last stand” is to marry Mrs. Ali in a small, private ceremony, reluctantly attended by the vicar and few others of his circle.
How would such an act of brave love be received in a predominantly white American suburb? Far less egregiously.
It would’ve arched far fewer eyebrows. Unlike in Edgecombe St. Mary, where the wedding is altogether boycotted by the vicar’s wife, in the U.S., the couple would’ve had the blessing of the local church.
Stories of South Asian immigrants, narrated by second-generation immigrants, tend to be of a predictable mold, which somewhat erodes their novelty to a reader belonging to the same community.
This book’s dashingly uncommon take on the theme of racial diversity, in my view, is tied to the fact that the writer is a non-immigrant. Simonson was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex.