In this textured tale about Punjabi Indian women and sexual taboos, Balli Kaur Jaswal masterfully juxtaposes modern and traditional, West and East, and each generation’s definition of oppression, with a murder mystery woven into the cultural tapestry.
Nikki Grewal has already disappointed her parents, identifying more as British than Punjabi Sikh. At 22 she tends bar at a London pub—a girl with half a law degree and no husband. She can’t believe her sister Mindi wants an arranged marriage. Nikki craves independence while Mindi wants a family; their goals couldn’t be more different. Nonetheless, Nikki helps Mindi advertise for a husband and travels to Southall, the Punjabi Indian community west of London, to pin her flyer on the Community marriage board at the Sikh temple.
While there, Nikki notices an ad for a part-time teacher of a women’s writing class. Although neither writer nor teacher, Nikki’s passion for empowering women causes her to contact Kulwinder Kaur, the Community Development Director at the Sikh Community Association. Although Nikki strikes her as spoiled, with no other applicants, Kulwinder offers her the job.
At class, each woman is wearing a white salwaar kameez—the attire of a widow—and most are older. A classroom full of grannies, Nikki thinks. No matter—she will still help them write their dull stories. But Nikki realizes most of the women can’t read or write; Kulwinder had promised that Nikki would teach them. After futilely trying to learn the alphabet, widow Bibi Manjeet admits that although they signed up for class just to fill time, they are interested in storytelling. Sheena, who is literate, can transcribe them.
The first story Sheena reads to the class is an erotic tale of a husband and wife. Nikki’s mouth hangs open; these are not the kinds of stories she expected older widows to think about, much less read in public. But the women tell her that their stories shouldn’t be unexpected just because their husbands are gone; they have much experience with desire.
“We talk about it all the time too. People see us and assume that we’re just filling our empty evenings with gossip but how much of that can one do? It’s far more fun to discuss the things we miss…..Or what we were never given in the first place.”
The widows are hurt that a modern girl like Nikki is embarrassed to hear their passionate fantasies.
“She doesn’t like it because she’s just like everybody else. All those people who say, ‘take no notice of those widows. Without their husbands, they’re irrelevant.’”
Nikki realizes that, even though Sikh law forbids widows to have romantic relationships, their desires and needs are the same as hers. On the outside, their dupattas and salwaar kameezzes differ from her jeans and sweaters, but on the inside, they also dream of physical and emotional fulfillment. Publicly, they must follow strict religious law, but in private they revel in their fantasies, even comically using vegetables to describe male organs. Their stories give the women a sense of power.
Besides Kulwinder Kaur’s struggle to create a women’s program at the male-dominated Sikh Community Center, she bears the grief of her only daughter Maya’s puzzling death nine months before. She realizes Nikki annoys her because she reminds her of Maya, who had also rejected the traditional Punjabi customs. Kulwinder is also scared; an unidentified man threatens to hurt her if she doesn’t stop trying to unravel the mystery behind Maya’s death.
As Nikki becomes more entwined in the Southall Punjabi community, she encounters those who despise women’s self-expression, and becomes an ally of the widows’ quiet resistance. When Nikki discovers a clue to Maya’s death, she becomes a target for the enforcers of Sikh mandates. Will Nikki escape danger as she helps Kulwinder search for the truth?
This book is a delightful foray into the personal lives of Punjabi Indian women, portraying the conflict between old and new, expected and desired, and acceptable and dishonorable. Kaur Jaswal explores “the idea of women defying expectations and rewriting their own narratives…. they should be able to tell their own stories; they must have a ‘sense of self’.” Written with both humor and understanding, Nikki’s journey into her culture is an entertaining revelation of a heritage I knew little about, poignantly reflecting the universality of our innermost desires.
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ABOUT BALLIE KAUR JASWAL:
Balli Kaur Jaswal is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, and Sugarbread, a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize. She has been a writer-in-residence at the University of East Anglia and Nanyang Technological University. Her third novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Harper Collins/William Morrow) was released internationally in March 2017. Translation rights to this novel have been sold in France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Greece, China and Estonia. Film rights to Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows have been acquired by Scott Free Productions and Film Four in the UK. Balli is currently working on a fourth novel about three sisters who go on a pilgrimage to India to reconnect with each other after their mother’s death.