Broadly speaking, Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third novel, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows, reminds me of Anita Heiss’ choclit books like Paris dreaming (my review). By this I mean it presents as an escapist romcom genre novel but within it is some serious intent. In this case it relates to the oppression of women, particularly widows, and, more specifically, the problem of honour killings, in Britain’s Punjabi Sikh community.
The story concerns the “still searching for her calling” Nikki, who, twenty-two-and-a-half years old with half a law degree behind her, obtains a job teaching writing to immigrant Punjabi widows in Southall, the heart of London’s Punjabi community. Except, what she finds is that these widows do not want to learn to write:
I’ve survived all this time without reading and writing; what do I need it for now?’
What they want is to tell stories – erotic ones – to each other. What they want, really, is companionship and a safe place to be themselves, away from the oppressive eyes of a traditional community dominated by the self-appointed “morality police”, the Brothers.
And here is where some darkness comes in, because within this community, several young women have died. Officially, these deaths are recorded as accidental or suicide, but it gradually becomes apparent that all may not be as it seems and that murder and honour-killing may be involved. Widow Sheena chillingly says later in the book that “in this community I’m suspicious of accidents.” The novel, therefore, is a romcom-cum-crime mystery.
Paralleling this story of the widows and their writing class is that of Nikki and her nearly 25-year-old sister, Mindi. Born in England to Punjabi immigrant parents, they represent the other side of the cultural coin – to a degree, anyhow, because Mindi, a nurse and (still) unmarried, is considering “embracing our culture” and going the traditional arranged marriage route. This shocks the freer wheeling, English-to-a-core-she-thinks, Nikki, who tells Mindi:
This is what young women do in Britain! We move out. We become independent. This is our culture.
Even so, our modern Nikki does sometimes feel “split in two parts. British, Indian.” Fortunately, Nikki meets a man the more usual way – by serendipity – and love starts to bloom. But, this is a rom-com so, as you’d expect, the course of true love doesn’t run smooth and soon enough Nikki finds herself wondering why this man is behaving a little strangely.
As with Anita Heiss’s choclit books, what lifts Erotic stories for Punjabi women out of the straight chick lit genre, is its interrogation of social issues. Besides the above-mentioned mystery concerning a young woman’s death, two other issues are reflected in the lives of these characters, one being the challenges faced by young first generation women, and how they navigate the two cultures they find themselves straddling. By having Nikki and Mindi handle this quite differently, Jaswal reveals the complexity of what this generation faces. Then we add in Nikki’s new love, Jason. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that his experience of being a first generation Sikh man from the USA, and the expectations placed on him, adds commentary to Nikki and Mindi’s thoughts about life, love and marriage.
The other main issue is the oppression of Punjabi Sikh women, particularly but not only widows, within their own culture and in the culture of their adopted home. Our widows are invisible in their own community. Without their husbands they are seen as and feel “irrelevant”. However, these Punjabi women overall haven’t made any inroads into the English community either, feeling the English “haven’t made their country or their customs friendly” to them. “Britain”, Nikki realises, “equalled a better life and they would have clung to this knowledge even as this life confounded and remained foreign.”
There is, then, a lot going on here, but Jaswal, whose first novel, Inheritance, earned her a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award, knows how to construct and move along a plot. She also knows how to entertain. The erotic stories are a bit of a hoot. With our widows finding creative synonyms for certain body parts, you may never look at a cucumber the same way again. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, which my reading group enjoyed, and there are some lovely touches of irony. For example, the earnest Kulwinder, interviewing Nikki for the writing class, starts to sense that Nikki’s idea and her own may not be aligned:
It dawned on Kulwinder that she had advertised for something she did not understand.
The joke, though, is on Nikki too, because for all her “passion to help the women”, little did she expect just how that “passion” might play out!
My favourite books are those which touch the heart and challenge the mind. Erotic stories for Punjabi widows, for all its serious intent, primarily meets the former. It ticks all the boxes: it’s fun to read, has likeable characters, and its message is valid and relevant. For me, though, it’s a little too obvious and predictable, and the resolution is too neat to give the book the sort of gritty, punchy power I love. However, I enjoyed the read and recommend it to anyone wanting an enjoyable romp of a read with a little meat on its bones.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.
Balli Kaur Jaswal
Erotic stories for Punjabi widows
London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 9780008209902 (eBook)