Tag-Archive for ◊ advanced age ◊

Author:
• Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Helen Simonson was born in Slough, Berkshire in 1964 and spent her teenage years in a small village near Rye in East Sussex, England. She graduated from the London School of Economics where she met her future American husband. She worked as a travel advertising executive and completed a masters degree in creative writing from Stony Brook Southampton, New York.

She has lived in the Washington D.C. Area and Brooklyn, New York, for over twenty years with her husband and two sons.

Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010, became a New York Times bestseller and was translated and published in several countries. Her second novel, The Summer Before The War, will be published in 2016.

Edgecombe St Mary is a small village in the English countryside in East Sussex where the two main characters live. Major Ernest Pettigrew, the sixty-eight year old widower, who lost his wife six years earlier, leads a peaceful life in his rural rose-covered cottage called Rose Lodge with a beautiful climbing clematis, the envy of his neighbours. And the good-looking Pakistani widow, ten years his junior, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the village shopkeeper who runs the business with her nephew, Abdul Wahid. Jasmina was born in Cambridge and has been bred by her learned, Anglophile father.

The story starts with the Major still in a daze after the shock following a phone call at dawn from his sister-in-law, announcing his younger brother Bertie’s death from a massive heart attack. Soon after, he answers the door-bell to find Mrs Ali who has come for the newspaper money because the paper-boy is sick. Still feeling the loss of his brother deeply, the major’s knees give way and he is about to faint but Mrs Ali props him up, takes him indoors and sits him down before fetching some water and making him tea.

Major Pettigrew is a conservative, sardonic, well-mannered gentleman who likes to live by his principles. He was born in Lahore and lived in colonial India as a child and is now a retired British Army officer who lives alone. He was happily married to his wife, Nancy, and late in life they had their only son, Roger, who was spoilt by his mother to his father’s discontent. Roger, now in his thirties, works in finance and lives in London. Throughout the novel, the author underlines the major’s disapproval of his insufferably brash son’s lack of respect, tact and bad behaviour.

There is a great cultural divide between the major and his son. The major likes to read classical English authors like Joseph Kipling, John Keats and William Wordsworth. He is a pragmatic person, values traditions, correctness and righteousness. Unlike his father, Roger is an uncultured, manipulative, superficial person, ruthlessly self-seeking, a social-climber who is always attracted to novelties and fashion in all domains. He wants his father to get rid of his beloved books in order to make room for an up-to-date wide-screen television.

The major is sentimental about what he considers his heritage, the valuable pair of heirloom antique guns which were given to his father by a maharajah as a reward for an act of bravery for saving the maharajah’s latest and youngest wife from a train full of murdering thugs. The major’s father, on his death bed, divided the prized Churchill guns between his two sons on the understanding that the two guns were to be reunited when one of the sons died. When Bertie passes away, the major is faced with the greed of his sister-in-law, Marjorie, his niece, Jemima, and his son Roger all wanting to sell the pair of guns and enjoy the money regardless of what the major feels or thinks.

Solid friendship between the major and Mrs Ali flourishes through sharing the same things, like the loss of their respective beloved spouses, their disobliging, bigoted families despite different ethnicity, their love of nature, their passion for literature, especially the works of Samuel Johnson, Joseph Kipling and others. They also have in common a sense of duty as well as being proud, polite and courteous.

The major and Mrs Ali surprise themselves by discovering that their hearts have no wrinkles, they can still feel passion and fall in love again regardless of their advanced age, different experiences in life, different cultural backgrounds and religion. All these elements constitute no barrier to common shared interests, mutual attraction and love.

Helen Simonson undertook a fair amount of research into the Pakistani community in England, the Indian Mughal Empire, shot guns and duck shooting. As for the fictitious towns of Edgecombe St. Mary and Hazelbourne-on-the-Sea, they are a combination of places that the author “knows and loves”.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a well written novel with well depicted, realistic, rich characters where women are portrayed as emancipated, strong, determined characters such as Mrs Jasmina Ali, Mrs Rasool, and Roger’s American fiancée, Sandy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an endearingly captivating story underlining the differences between the old and the new generation. Despite the humour one cannot help noticing the blatant fanaticism, veiled racism and the insidious link between money and corruption and how money can deteriorate, divide and destroy families. There is also the romantic story between the two protagonists with the assertion that authentic love transcends all obstacles and all ages so long as one is being true to oneself and because as long as there is life, there is hope.

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Category: Book Reviews  | 2 Comments
Author:
• Sunday, February 01st, 2009

Kunal Basu was born in Calcutta, India in 1956 to middle class communist parents, a publisher father, Sunil Kumar, and an author and actress mother, Chabi Basu. He studied in South Point High School in Calcutta and graduated in 1978 in Mechanical Engineering from Jadavpur University in India.

With his doctorate in hand, he taught at McGill University in Montreal in Canada from 1986 to 1999 and since 1999 he has been a professor of marketing and management studies at Oxford University in England. He was married in 1982 , has a daughter, and still lives in England.

Kunal Basu’s three acclaimed novels are: The Opium Clerk published in 2001, The Miniaturist published in 2003, and Racist published in 2006.

His most recent book, The Japanese Wife published in 2008, is a collection of short stories.

Kunal Basu, through his historical, enthralling fiction and minutely described tale, The Miniaturist, carries his readers into the exotic world of 16th century India at the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, who reigned from 1460 to 1535, and the prodigy painter Bihzad.

It’s a sumptuous tale, similar to the One Thousand and One Nights, full of harems, eunuchs, slaves, servants, luxurious palaces, kings, courtiers, love, jealousies and intrigues.

In The Miniaturist, like My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, the reader is transported to the same era, its artistic ground and its culture, which was no doubt one of the most advanced world wide for centuries, since it yielded the most sumptuous miniature paintings in the history of art.

The main figure in this vividly portrayed tale is Bihzad the Persian, the most gifted and talented artist of his time. The story follows Bihzad from his childhood to an advanced age. The Khwaja, Bihzad’s father, brought him up as a recluse. Deprived from any education or social life which could have a corrupting influence on his art, he had to remain pure. Unfortunately, Bihzad like all geniuses is tormented; he questions himself about the true value of art and of artists. He rebels by refusing to follow in his father’s footsteps and becomes a courtier and to be like other artists a copier, his renunciation of life is most moving. Bihzad believed that a true artist must set his creative spirit free.

He wanders aimlessly on a journey of self repudiation and in the midst of his suffering the voice of his wife Zohra, the daughter of the Hazari ruler, resonates in his ears: “Your gift is your curse. Your defect. It’ll make you suffer. Even if you wanted to escape, it wouldn’t spare you. It’ll cripple you, even if you flee, it will seek its revenge”.

He inflicts on himself blindness by tying his eyes firmly in order not to relapse and paint again before he could achieve the fundamental vision that he seeks. He leads a life of a beggar, suffering and enduring in order to purge himself in the hope of reaching the Nirvana and to be at peace with the world and within himself.

The liberation comes at the end when he meets the emperor Akbar on his deathbed. Now the penniless beggar, Bihzad the wanderer, seems to have reached his destination, at last. Akbar has forgiven him and called him not an artist but a saint, because “only a saint is truly blind, seeing none but the God inside him”. Now he can unfold his eyes and draw again for posterity his beloved Akbar dying, to fulfil his emperor’s request and “turn into an artist for the last time.”