Why did I read this book?
Quirky titles and quirkier descriptions are enough to make me stop and consider a book while browsing at a shop. This was another of those ‘I have to kill time before my flight arrives’ moments and I chanced upon this novel at the Delhi airport bookshop, neatly tucked in a row-ful of Indian fiction writers. Amused on reading the title, I was at a loss at what the book could possibly be about, it reminded me of all the times, I was tricked into picking up Durjoy Datta books because of the same reason (Of course I love you, till I find someone better, Now that you’re rich, let’s fall in love), you get the drift don’t you? An old trick I’d picked up while debating in school was about experimenting with etymology, breaking down the sentence, word by word, and trying to make sense. But ‘erotic’ ‘punjabi’ ‘widows’ together conjured as much sense as abracadabra. Infact, I was the recipient of dirty judgmental looks thrown at me by co-passengers, who seemed to think the worst of me at the choice of book for a 23-year old girl.
The plus points were that I had recently read holocaust biographies, stories about India Pakistan partition violence and Kashmiri militant memoirs. Perhaps a humorous account of elderly widowed aunties would be an endearing change? Plus, Ms. Kaur was new on the block. Of course, she deserved at least one read with that title.
The Plot Summary
The story is set in Southall, London where Nikki Kaur, a 23-year old British-bred Punjabi, signs up as an instructor for English creative-writing classes at the community Gurudwara. Of course, she’s tricked into believing that, until her first day of job, when she realises that all her students are widowed women in their late 60s and 40s, exhibiting the traits of a stereotypical Punjabi. Barely literate in Gurmukhi (Punjabi script), English alphabets seemed like a different planet to these ladies. So, what happens then, when you gather a roomful of old Punjabi aunties and try to teach them kindergarten alphabets? – they open up to each other over light banter, only to vicariously discover womanhood and sexualities through story telling sessions!
But it’s not all woolly women chatter and aunties’ gossip, I might be getting ahead of myself, but the story also covers the dark stories of Southall Punjabi community – the unresolved deaths of Karina, Gulshan and Maya, three defiant young women – are the subject of whispers and salacious rumours
Ms. Kaur laces out a tale that traces the contours of impregnable Punjabi community and insider-outsider perspective through Nikki Kaur.
What are my views on the book?
Ms. Kaur got hooked me on to the plot by the sheer simplicity and realistic portrayal of the characters. Throughout the book she consistently gets two things right: the pace of the story and character building for the protagonist. There is no over-dramatisation of events, no hyperbole in the scale of reactions, almost every response is warranted by the nature of the event : Nikki leaving moving out of the house, starting a bar-tending job after dropping out of law college led to a series of events typically anticipated at an Indian household.
The events are also relatable and carefully selected : the groom hunting ritual of an arranged marriage, coping with pesky relatives and their nosy questions on virginity and dealing with untimely death of their husbands, moral policing kids of the community on garb of ‘community izzat’
The characters are realistically crafted – Nikki dealing with second generation immigrant struggles (Watch the TV Series Master of None), dealing with parental expectations of an acceptable occupation, of ideological differences with a conservative sister. Let me give you some more context – the delicate representation of a deep seated complex for a child prioritising personal choices over the family’s greater good, selfish or ambitious, collectivism over individualism? – she struggles to fathom an answer for herself. More accurately, none of members display extreme or eccentric behaviour, any dialogue could simply be painlessly juxtaposed in an Indian family.
And meanwhile, much happens during the class hours also – there are hilarious accounts of first time sexual encounters & wedding nights, the illicit lovemaking stories hidden from the eyes of the mother-in-laws’ of the house (Just to add to the fun – Male reproductive organs are referred to as ‘aubergines’ and ‘ladyfingers’, Vanaspati Ghee for lubrication, ‘Bum Bread’ is innovative utilisation of organs for kneading dough – and all this knowledge transfer being done by sisters of the bride just hours before her wedding night!)
Amidst all the banter, there is an underlying element of strength here – of these illiterate widowed women coming out of the closet and creating a voice of their own in society. She also highlights a generational gap of women who previously struggled for a voice or a seat at the table, of first generation immigrants against the women today who are empowered merely because of their ability of having choices, of not facing the horrors of beginning life anew in an unknown country, of being literate in a funny little language known was English. Nikki’s ‘English language’ classes served as a facilitating tool, as freedom to these women merely meant the chance encounter of being heard. Their kinky stories’ and so-called story telling classes’ right in the premises of the Gurudwara represented an unimaginable world, that they were a part of something bigger, unprecedented and unheard of in the Punjabi community.
All the scenes fit perfectly into the jigsaw puzzle, there are no loose ends to the plot or wide gaps in reasoning. And yet she leaves the ending at a realistic note about an uncertain future, about how we remain uncertain about the nature and outcome of relationships. It’s not as poignant as magical realism, it’s not as heart wrenching as war time stories, neither is it a humour laden piece. I felt it had the right blend of all – those elderly widows – all had different traits, creating an amalgam characteristic of an large Indian family of all ages and types.
And the best part is that most of it is a true story.
Bottomline: Give it a read if you’re up for a peek into their world!
Name: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal (Published in March 2017)
Genre: Adult Fiction
What are some of the best lines from the book?
As a drift away from normal, I’ll write the awesome things published by print media about the book :
“Yet these stories, where lascivious ladies demand what they want from husbands and lovers of both sexes, chafe against the sensibilities of a community that still upholds a strict honour code” ~ on the impossibility of Nikki’s classes!