(cover image courtesy Harper Collins)
One of life’s great delights is having your expectations of something completely and utterly challenged and subverted, in the best possible way.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal is such the latest example of assumptions being made, in this case based on the cheekily playful title, and then summarily tossed aside as the true character of this impressively-insightful book makes its presence felt.
While the title might suggest a whimsical, lighthearted novel that bubbles along with fey, rom-com level sensibilities, what you in fact end up with is a cleverly told tale, with some delicious melodrama thrown in for good measure, that takes a serious look at the way conservatism of any kind can warp and twist the lives of a community for the worse.
In the case of Nikki, a thoroughly modern Punjabi-British woman who works in a pub and has moved out to live on her own in direct contravention of her mother’s wishes, it has some profound effects on her life when a simple job to teach widows at the temple in Southall, London ends up being a liberationist movements, one with a decidedly sexual edge to it, that changes not just her life but the lives of the many widows who come into her orbit.
“Nikki stopped and looked around. She was surrounded by women with their heads covered – women hurrying after their toddlers, women giving each other sideways glances, women hunched over their walking frames. Each one had a story. She could see herself addressing a room full of these Punjabi women … Fiery-eyed and indignant, they would pen their stories for the whole world to read.” (PP. 19-20)
At first, it’s a meeting of wholly different worlds.
While Nikki is Punjabi, she’s as far from a traditional woman of the community as you can get, affectionately scornful of her her more conservative sister Mindi’s attempts to set up an arranged marriage for herself; whereas the women who turn up at her class are well schooled in the traditions of a world in which a whole host of demands are never spoken but nonetheless acknowledged with resignation and always acceded to, lest the scorn of others come raining down upon them.
Nikki is dismissive of these concerns at first, and the widows uncertain what to do with a woman who is technically part of their community but who doesn’t subscribe to many of its tenets.
But as the classes progress and morph with a surprising agility brought on by women who find their voices at last from English conversation tutoring to the sharing and writing of exotic stories, it becomes apparent that they have much more in common that either party would have expected.
Once again, assumptions are confounded, and everyone is all the better for it.
But not, it should be added, in some sort of fairytale fashion; in fact, while there are some lovely elements to this story and the relationships ring rich, true and warm (even the antagonistic ones are richly-realised), Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a far graver undertaking than its title may suggest.
As Nikki and the widows comes to know each better, and the creation of the stories loosen up all sorts of pent-up desires, a wave of freedom spills over with some dangerous implications as well as beguiling possibilities into the wider Punjabi community where not everyone is really to embrace truth and honesty, and sexuality for that matter.
What starts as women who had longed for so much more from their relationships finding expression in tales ripe with sexual fantasy and emotional connection, steadily becomes a movement that promises real change for these women and the wider conservative society in which they must tread on cultural eggshells or face censure and opprobrium from the likes of male extremists like the Brothers.
It’s not quite that dramatic of course with the classes developing at first in fits and starts, but once it gains momentum and Nikki’s students, who become her friends, such as Sheena, Arvinder, Preetam, and even the class convenor Kulwinder, who is mourning the loss of her daughter to a marriage gone wrong that ended in her death, find their voice, there’s no stop what they women are capable of and what they set out to achieve.
Rather than being some sort of twee British tale of the locked-away and oppressed giddily finding their way and the rest of the world parting to make for them, becomes far more grounded and substantial, a reflection of what can happen when the chains are loosened, strictures are relaxed, and life is allowed to find its own way, free from oppressive expectations.
“Through the narrow slit between the curtains, Kulwinder could only see the entryway and the staircase. The vision in the window had been a trick – the sun emerging and disappearing with uncertainty, not quite knowing its rightful position in this time between seasons. A sensation of relief fanned across Kulwinder’s body like a fever was breaking. She kissed her fingertips and then pressed them to the window.
It was finally time to let Maya go.” (P. 363)
What is especially pleasing with Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is that the women awaken themselves to the possibilities around them, taking firm grip of a wheel too long denied them.
Nikki is a catalyst of sorts but its more her presence than incites this erotic revolution, a much-delayed articulation of long buried desires than has as much an effect on the teacher as it does the students.
There is a beautiful rhythm and flow to this book, which weaves in elements of romance, repression, freedom, conservatism challenged, and even a murder mystery of sorts to a wholly satisfying result.
The characters are vivacious and alive and while there are some are melodramatically elements and many loose ends are neatly tied up, you don’t begrudge a moment of the happiness that comes from these women finally discovering what a truly-lived life looks like.
Grounded in the reality of a community that is brought to life with all its pluses and minuses, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a substantial gem that deftly balances loss and the possibility of gains with aplomb, a joyous journey with darker elements that opens a window on what can happen when the door of oppression is opened a little and the light and all it reveals is allowed to steal in.