Sunday, November 28, 2010

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

‘Sakhi’ Book Club Dec. 2010 Pick

In ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’, the inhabitants of Edgecombe St. Mary appear to be feeling the backlash of colonialism’s karma. They have hitherto practiced a genteel social segregation – a place for everyone and everyone in their place. But their Pakistani neighbors don’t seem to be following the rules – they’re refusing to use the service entrance at the clubhouses; questioning the traditional British perspective of the Indian sub-continent’s history; and horrors, even aspiring to hobnob with them as social equals.

The protagonist of Helen Simonson’s novel, Major Pettigrew, is himself a quintessential English gentleman, so rigid, that not only does he have a stiff upper lip, he also seems to have a very stiff poker inserted up a bodily cavity. The Major does not impress favorably at first sight. He seems to have a profound distaste for all things un-English, such as European couture, American commercialism, or even the notion of a more equitable sharing of one’s patrimony.

But a strange thing happens. Following the death of his brother, and a moment of sympathy from the local Pakistani shop-owner, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, he finds himself increasingly attracted to her. The Major and Mrs. Ali have a lot in common - both book-lovers, who are mourning the passing away of much-loved spouses, and whose family members impose shamelessly on them. They are both also very much a part of their own social world, though not averse to the other’s. Therein lies the problem. The Major’s English friends and neighbors make it plain to him that his ‘lady-friend’ could never truly be one of them. The Major, who has more than a few hypocritical bones in his body, has his doubts as well. Jasmina, hemmed in by her husband’s conservative Muslim family, has problems of her own to resolve. Will true love surmount all obstacles, or will it give in quietly to practical considerations?

The English comedy of manners is a hard act to pull off. It requires a deft, delicate touch accompanied by a spot-on skewering of society’s little hypocrisies and intolerance. Ms. Simonson has done a commendable job in this novel. Her witty, observant writing reveals that no single community holds the exclusive rights to small-mindedness and bigotry. She manages to peel away the carefully cultivated layers of national attitudes and cultural identities to reveal the imperfect, endearing human beings underneath. A promising beginning from a debutante author.

No comments: