Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
I read it as a: paperback
Source: my own collection
Length: 295 pp
Publisher: William Morrow
London-born Nikki utterly rejects her Punjabi culture’s traditional views, especially arranged marriage. So she is naturally horrified when her older sister, Mindi, actually decides she wants an arranged marriage and asks Nikki to post a marriage profile on the temple’s announcements board for her. Nikki does, grudgingly, and while there, discovers a notice for a job teaching writing at the local Punjabi community center. She takes the job and quickly learns it is not a creative writing class, as the flier had implied, but a basic adult literacy class given to mostly older widows who had never been educated in their native language, let alone in English. Understandably, they are uninterested in learning to read and write using the texts for kindergarteners, which is all that is available to them. What they are interested in is storytelling. Specifically, telling romantic and generally filthy dirty erotic stories. So Nikki uses that to help empower the women, many of whom had never been encouraged to speak up or felt loved in their marriages, going against her culture and customs to do so. At the same time, she inadvertently stumbles across some evidence from the death of a young woman that may prove she hadn’t died in the way everyone had been told, placing Nikki and the widows in danger with the local gang of self-appointed “morality police.”
I loved every word of this novel. I thought it was so interesting to see the differences in the younger and older generations in this very traditional culture. I know next to nothing about Punjabi traditions, and so it was kind of shocking to me to know that arranged marriages are still a thing for many of them even living in Western countries. I am a bit confused by some things that I read when getting ready to write this review as compared to what was written in this book. For example, multiple sites indicate that Sikhs value gender equality, and yet it seems that some of them, at least the very traditional people, get bent if a girl is not a virgin when she gets married. Honor killings were a thing in this book. Of course, wayward sons didn’t seem to get anything worse than ignored/cut off from family, but girls get murdered. So I don’t get that at all. Not sure if that’s just typical religious hypocrisy or patriarchal bullshit or what, but there it is. Then there were The Brothers, the self-appointed bunch of moral police/thugs who try to reign in the widows from telling their stories. Word to the wise, little boys: don’t fuck with the grannies. It will not go well for you.
Aside from me being confused by religious contradictions and hypocrisy, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows me even a little bit, I just loved this story. I think it was interesting that Nikki got so involved with the widows. At first, it could seem like it was self-serving on her part, that she simply wanted a job, but I think she quickly realized that she could make a difference to the women and to the community as a whole. Also, when she tells the widows that some people don’t even know about Southall, the London Punjabi community, and that they should change that, I do think it is because she sees a lot of potential in the women themselves, and has tapped into her own latent desire to do social justice, even if she herself wasn’t aware of it yet. The widows are able to help her, and themselves, accomplish something new and daring in part because of their almost invisible role in the community. As one of the women stated, no one ever listens to old women talking because it’s like white noise. They used their low position in society to effect change, because no one knew what they were up to until it was too late to stop them or contain it. That’s fucking phenomenal.
This invisibility also shows just how much younger generations disregard the lives and experiences of their elders. No one ever thinks about how our parents or grandparents have lives and individual identities that have nothing to do with us. They have and had desires and fantasies just the same as our own generation, whatever generation that may be. Sometimes, I suppose that realization comes as a surprise to people. Having the widows write their fantasies is such a delightful way to show the young’uns that they were not, in fact, the first ones to discover stuff to do in the bedroom, or anywhere else.
Overall, I just loved this book and definitely recommend it. It would make a great book club selection.