On the morning Major Ernest Pettigrew's brother dies, the Major, himself a widower pushing seventy, receives an unexpected visitor: Mrs. Ali, the town shopkeeper in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary. The two have previously only crossed paths in the shop, but this day, she enters his house to prepare him some tea and console him. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Mrs. Ali drives the Major to his brother's funeral. At the funeral, not only does the Major's son, Roger, show up late, but everyone also seems focused on one thing—a family heirloom worth thousands of pounds. When the Major's father died years ago, he left his sons a pair of hunting guns, one gun per son, with the promise they be reunited and passed on when one of them died. The Major looks forward to reuniting the pair. His son wants to sell them.
To make this family dispute worse, the Major's brother included nothing about the guns in his will, meaning that his widow is free to do whatever she wants with them. The Major formulates a little white lie, saying that he will show the guns to an American land developer, though his intention is to get the other gun back and restore it. The American land developer is real, but the Major has no plans to sell. He gets the gun and polishes it back to new.
While all this is happening, the Major is wrangled into planning a village dance by Daisy, the vicar's wife, and Grace, a member of the flower committee. Their theme is "An Evening at the Mughal Court," and Grace and the Major agree to collaborate with Mrs. Ali to make the dance as un-racist as possible. Mrs. Ali recruits a friend of hers and discovers that her friend's niece, Amina, is the mother of her nephew Abdul Wahid's son. Got that?
So, in addition to gun polishing and party planning, now the Major has to help convince Abdul Wahid to marry Amina. But Abdul Wahid, who refuses to stay under one roof with an unmarried woman, moves out when Mrs. Ali moves Amina in. So the Major agrees to let Abdul Wahid stay with him, which creates tension between the Major and his son, Roger, who cannot believe a Muslim is staying there.
Complicated enough for you? Well, it gets more tangled. Roger has an American girlfriend, Sandy, and the two of them are cottage shopping in the English countryside. They enlist the Major's help, but Roger and Sandy's relationship doesn't last. Eventually, Sandy realizes that Roger's only priority is Roger, specifically advancing himself in English society. She isn't a ladder rung to be stepped on, so Sandy dumps Roger on Christmas Eve and returns to the States.
Finally, the big racist party happens, starring all the Pakistani people in town pretending to be Indian because the white party planners don't know any different slash don't care. It comes as no surprise that this does not go well. Mrs. Ali's friend, Mrs. Rasool, brings her father-in-law, who starts yelling at everyone for mocking his culture. He has a point.
Things escalate quickly, and when Daisy insults Mrs. Ali by telling Grace she shouldn't associate with her, the Major defends Grace, saying "Grace is entitled to have anyone she likes to tea" (17.173). He quickly realizes that he should have defended Mrs. Ali, the woman he is falling in love with, instead, but it's too late.
Mrs. Ali agrees to give her store as a dowry of sorts to her husband's family so that Abdul Wahid and Amina can wed. She moves in with her in-laws and completely disappears from Edgecombe St. Mary. The Major is depressed. He leans on Grace, Mrs. Ali's other friend in town, for support. Grace is pretty awesome, so the Major proposes marriage to her.
Proposal rejected. Grace informs the Major that, no matter what your age, passion is a key component to a marriage. She and the Major have a friendship, but there's no passion. Mrs. Ali—now, that's where the Major's passion lies. Grace manages to get Mrs. Ali's address, and the Major decides to pay her a visit. It turns out that she has been writing to him, but her manipulative brother-in-law wasn't mailing the letters.
Feeling as heroic as Sir Galahad, the Major sweeps Mrs. Ali away, and they make love in a romantic cabin in the woods. Then they return to Edgecombe St. Mary for the wedding of Amina and Abdul Wahid. Does anyone have any objections to this wedding? Yes, one of Abdul Wahid's crazy relatives does, so she stabs Amina with a knitting needle.This book just got real, y'all. Real nuts.
The crazy old woman and Abdul Wahid travel to the seaside cliffs, where Abdul Wahid plans to throw himself over the edge in a sudden fit of suicidal impulses. The Major and Mrs. Ali pursue, and the Major brings one of his prized guns along (remember those?). The Major clocks the old woman with the butt of the gun (we are not making this up) and knocks her out. Then he has to talk Abdul Wahid down from the ledge. The Major stands between Abdul Wahid and the ocean, gives Abdul Wahid the gun, and tells him, "Either shoot me or choose to live yourself" (24.124). Abdul Wahid can't do it, so he tosses the gun aside…
The gun goes off, shooting the Major anyway. Oops. The Major falls over the cliff, but Abdul Wahid saves him, and the Major is taken to the hospital. While the Major is in the hospital, Amina and Abdul Wahid decide not to marry, after all, because Amina doesn't want to spend her life in a store. She's a dancer, born to dance! But she promises to stay close, so Abdul Wahid can have a relationship with his son.
After recovering, the Major officially proposes to Mrs. Ali, and the two are wed. Aww. We hope they live happily ever after.