“I was raised in a library of a thousand books,” recounts Mrs Ali, a Cambridge-born who has lived all her life in England. When her academician father migrated from the subcontinent to England, he carried with him just trunk-loads of books.
Major Pettigrew, an Englishman, spent his early years in Lahore. His father’s proudest moment there was being presented with a pair of Churchills, highly-prized guns, for saving a maharani from the horrors of Partition. The guns were now Major Pettigrew’s most valued possession.
Fifty eight-year-old Mrs Ali and 68-year-old Pettigrew are both struggling to preserve a precious past. Not always successfully. While Mrs Ali can do nothing but stand paralysed with shame when her uncles sell and burn her father’s books, Pettigrew has a tough time preventing his upwardly-mobile son and mercenary niece from selling off the Churchills.
Having lost their respective spouses, the two are often overwhelmed by a feeling of being completely alone. This, and Kipling, draw them to one another. And they discover that, though their skins may be differently-coloured, they have a lot in common, far more than they do with their respective communities. Theirs is a shared battle to save a genteel lifestyle that is being eroded by, on the one hand, a neo-Islamic rigidity, and, on the other, by ambitious youngsters who ride rough-shod over all that is valued from an era gone by.
Walking through the Major’s garden, where plants nurtured by his grandmother continue to bloom, and looking beyond at sheep fields and oak trees, Mrs Ali exclaims, “I don’t believe the greatest views in the world are great because they are vast or exotic. I think their power comes from the knowledge that they do not change. You look at them and you know they have been the same for a thousand years.”
And Pettigrew narrates how his wife laughed at his aversion to change. “She said… I risked being reincarnated as a granite post.” Plants, books, sipping tea together, appreciation of the finer things of life…they cling to these even as the ground from under their feet seems to be slipping away.
It is a charming, autumnal love story set in a village in present-day England. The village is under threat of redevelopment by a crass moneybag from America. Coming upon the pink-golf-shirted Ferguson from the US of A, Pettigrew reflects wryly that two Americans (his son has recently introduced him to a girlfriend from the same country) in as many weeks was like the start of a nasty epidemic. “America wielded her huge power in the world with a brash confidence that reminded him of a toddler who has got hold of a hammer,” writes Simonson about Pettigrew’s helplessness before the peremptory, over-powering behaviour of those from across the Atlantic.
Peppered with such sardonic observations, the book is a sharp commentary on multi-racial England. If the Americans lack finesse, the original inhabitants of this village are no better when it comes to interacting with fellow villagers whose forefathers migrated from erstwhile colonies.
At the annual club dinner, the ladies put up a song-and-dance show that trivialises the trauma of Partition. And when old Mr Rasool who lost his mother and sister during that horrific time protests, he is jeered with cries of ‘Bloody Pakis’. Clearly Mrs Ali’s father’s dream of being accepted by England, like the Saxons and Normans had accepted one another, is still a long way off.
Ironically, it is the Rasools who, later, bail out a Lord Dagenham from his financial crisis by leasing his country house!
Sharp, witty, peopled with characters that will have you chuckling through gloomy, rainy days, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand juxtaposes values, lifestyles, generations, communities and cultures with the pen of a sociologist and the brushstrokes of love.