Book: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Age/Genre: Contemporary Adult Fiction
Reading Accoutrements: Some Tea, Scents that remind you of home
Content Notes: Racism, Sexism, Honor Killings
Recently, a friend and I were discussing books we’d read and he mentioned that he really enjoyed Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. I hadn’t heard of it, but from the description, it sounded right up my alley, so he leant it to me.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows follows Nikki, a British Indian woman in her early twenties in modern day London. Nikki is your typical independent feminist looking for a calling. Against tradition and to her mother’s chagrin, she lives in an apartment alone, though she visits her mom and sister often. At the beginning of the novel, Nikki’s sister, Mindi, wants Nikki to help her edit a wedding profile so that she can pursue a semi-arranged marriage. Nikki is appalled at the idea, but eventually goes to the temple to post Mindi’s listing.
At the temple, Nikki spots a job ad for a community writing instructor for women. She has a background in writing and is interested in civil rights, so is excited at the prospect of empowering Punjabi women, who she sees as subject to a lot of oppression. So, she submits an application. While at the temple, she also meets Jason, who she finds very attractive, and invites him to visit her at the bar she works at later in the week.
Kulwinder, who posted the job ad, is one of the only women employed by the temple, and she has to fight for any little bit of funding and programming. She speaks English, but doesn’t write fluently, so didn’t realize that her job ad read like a creative writing position. The women she is organizing the class for don’t know how to write in English at all, so they need basic literacy and writing instruction.
Nikki instantly clashes with Kulwinder and most of the other temple women. They see her as too “modern” and lacking in respect. She sees them as pushy and stuck in old ways. Though she feels misled, Nikki agrees to teach the women basic letters and grammar, but the lessons quickly get sidetracked. These women are widows, mostly elderly, all ignored by the larger Punjabi community – especially men. They crave conversation and connection, and so the classes quickly become story-telling sessions. Through a comedic series of events, the women start telling erotic stories that one of the women (who has some writing experience) translates and transcibes. Nikki has to balance keeping the women engaged and keeping the content of the classes secret from Kulwinder and temple higher-ups.
Nikki and Kulwinder are the two main characters of the novel, and perspective shifts between them in individual chapters. At first, I felt like Nikki’s character was almost written to make “the youth” seem obnoxious and entitled, but as the story progressed, I realized the characterization at the beginning functioned mainly to show the rift between Nikki and her traditional-leaning family.
Kulwinder is in Nikki’s mom’s generation. She had a daughter around Nikki’s age, who died a few years prior to the events of the book. Kulwinder is being blackmailed in connection with her daughter’s death, which was ruled a suicide despite suspicious circumstances (but we’ll discuss the murder mystery subplot later). She wants to fight for justice for her daughter, but fears that she and her husband will be targeted if she makes one wrong step. Kulwinder’s daughter, Maya, was much like Nikki – interested in a lot of the same social justice issues, like fighting for her independence.
One thing I appreciated about this book is that it shows tension between generations without declaring either “right” or “wrong.” We see people act unreasonably, be controlling, and inflict harsh judgements on others, and for the most part, we also see the reasoning behind their behavior. Many of the elderly women have never been taken seriously or given autonomy, so they resent the younger generation’s sense of entitlement to such things. Nikki respects her elders and loves her family, but she wants to be able to make her own choices.
The stories told by the widows are my favorite parts of the book. I love how these vignettes show the womens’ histories and personalities through the way they talk about sex. I thought that the story went a little overboard on the “enabling women to be honest about their desires will solve all inequality” angle, but I was pretty much expecting that from what I’ve seen of the marketing of the book. This has “Inspirational” written all over it, and I’m pretty surprised there’s not a movie in the works yet.
All of the other subplots were a bit underwhelming for me. I liked the character development, but the murder mystery subplot seemed silly, even though its message was extremely sad. The mystery of Kulwinder’s daughter’s death serves several functions: showing one example of how parents cope with the death of their adult children, bringing Nikki and Kulwinder closer, and highlighting the dangerousness of conservative communities for women. But the actual arc of that subplot reads like a lighthearted cozy mystery instead of the emotional, heavy subject that it is.
Nikki and Jason’s love story was completely superfluous and could have been left out entirely. All it did was introduce unnecessary drama. All of Nikki’s characterization within that storyline overlaps with interactions with her family and friends. It could be argued that the coupling serves as a contrast to Mindi’s search for a husband, but I think that the points about different people searching for love in different ways are made clear without Nikki’s “almost-too-perfect-until-nefarious-secrets-get-in-the-way” budding relationship.
The writing was casual and fun, easy-to-read. The characters had distinct voices, and the parts where people are speaking in different languages are written clearly so you always know what language is being spoken. Non-fluency in both English and Punjabi is portrayed respectfully, showing people’s different points of progress with learning new languages without getting into “judgemental” territory.
I rolled my eyes at a lot of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, but I also enjoyed it. I think this book showed the London Punjabi diaspora in a nuanced way, so I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s work in the future.