…An Enduring Connection to the Indian Subcontinent – Helen Simonson
Helen Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, is a seemingly simple tale that touches on some deep and
insightful topics: the legacy of imperialism, cross-cultural relationships, identity and tradition. Perhaps I’m an old soul, but I loved this charming little tale of “mature love.” Edgecombe St. Mary is a small English village where the neighbors spend much of their time gossiping and a narrow-minded view of the world is pervasive. Major Pettigrew himself is introduced as an archetypal Englishman, a retired army major and widower. Mrs. Ali, the only Pakistani and a widow in the village, serves as the village shopkeeper. It is in this setting that the Major and Mrs. Ali embark on an unexpected friendship that breaks through cultural barriers and socially accepted norms.
Simonson uses dry humor and perfectly timed sarcasm to depict her story, characters, and themes. She weaves into the story enlightening discussions between the Major and Mrs. Ali on topics such as English literature, the work of Kipling, their love for reading, their feelings of loyalty and commitment to their families, loneliness and belonging. Through their conversations and the thoughts and actions of the other characters, we gain insight to the social stigmas that continue to exist in modern day English society.
The major’s own history consists of his birth in Lahore, in present-day Pakistan, and his father’s tenure in India during the British Raj. While the Major carries a strong sense of English nationalism, he maintains an unsaid bond with the land where he was born. Meanwhile, Mrs. Ali, though Pakistani by origin, was born and bred in England. Her place in society is sadly complex and unfortunately unfair, despite the fact that she is in some ways more English than many of her English neighbors. At times, it was mystifying how little her English neighbors knew about her culture or heritage and how little they wanted to know — a topic I’ll refrain from deconstructing, as I’m sure there are numerous academic papers out there on Britian’s complicated past with South Asia and and the racism that is still prevalent.
Belonging, family, tradition, and freedom become pertinent to both characters despite their differences in background and culture.
In an interview, Helen Simonson, who has lived in New York for a number of years, shared her own British heritage and longing for home. Her perspective is therefore unique in that she too must grapple with the issues of identity and belonging as do her characters. She was able to successfully combine a number of difficult themes to create a story that goes beyond its scope without being too serious and that is likely to resonate with anyone who feels out of place. To me, the idea that in some cases there continues to be a British connection with the Indian subcontinent was intriguing. While the post-colonial experience within the Subcontinent is discussed prolifically in works of fiction, the post-colonial experience and its impact on British identity is discussed less often, if ever. And so a funny, light read about a quaint English village inspires some serious thoughts about culture and identity.