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Book Review: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal (4/5)

6 May

My husband saw the title for this book on my book club calendar and had to laugh at me. I can’t blame him. Out of context, the title seems odd. But when I started reading this book, I realize that the stories are a small part while they’re also the focus of the novel. It’s not about the stories, but the writers and how they change. This book took me happily by surprise.

PunjabiErotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Summary from Amazon:

Nikki lives in cosmopolitan West London, where she tends bar at the local pub. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she’s spent most of her twenty-odd years distancing herself from the traditional Sikh community of her childhood, preferring a more independent (that is, Western) life. When her father’s death leaves the family financially strapped, Nikki, a law school dropout, impulsively takes a job teaching a “creative writing” course at the community center in the beating heart of London’s close-knit Punjabi community.

Because of a miscommunication, the proper Sikh widows who show up are expecting to learn basic English literacy, not the art of short-story writing. When one of the widows finds a book of sexy stories in English and shares it with the class, Nikki realizes that beneath their white dupattas, her students have a wealth of fantasies and memories. Eager to liberate these modest women, she teaches them how to express their untold stories, unleashing creativity of the most unexpected—and exciting—kind.

As more women are drawn to the class, Nikki warns her students to keep their work secret from the Brotherhood, a group of highly conservative young men who have appointed themselves the community’s “moral police.” But when the widows’ gossip offers shocking insights into the death of a young wife—a modern woman like Nikki—and some of the class erotica is shared among friends, it sparks a scandal that threatens them all.

I did not expect there to be a mystery to this book and I loved it! That added a layer that was a complete surprise to me an allowed me to enjoy the book even more. What the book had to say about culture was really important, too. Nikki straddled her Punjabi roots and her London location better than some, but never seemed to completely fit in either location. Many times, it was comments from non-Punjabi’s who made her feel like she didn’t fit in and these microaggressions are so quick and might be forgettable to the errant speaker but are so painful to the victim. I thought Jaswal gave the reader a lot to think about with this book and I think I’ll seek her out for more in the future.

The characters rang true to me. I can’t comment too much about their authenticity since a lot of their identities circled around being part of a minority group that I’m not part of. However, I felt their humanity in their conversation and interactions. The community they had was wonderful and it made me hope that I can find such a community if I ever find myself a window.

Kulwinder ended up being my favorite character in the end. I think she may have been the most dynamic person in the book. The way her relationship with her husband heals was really great to see. I liked how she admitted that she misjudged Nikki and worked to right that mistake. She was brave in the way she stood up to her male coworkers and fought for woman’s classes. She didn’t seem to realize how much she’d influenced Maya with her ideas.

Nikki was really relatable as a daughter. There are times I’m afraid I’m disappointing my parents or have disappointed them in the past and I felt the same guilt that Nikki shared. I think most children feel this. Mine has never been to the same degree as what Nikki shouldered with her father’s death, but I think Jaswal gave a lot of different examples of ways that Nikki felt she could or should have done something different for her parents.


Balli Kaur Jaswal Image via the author’s Facebook page

I liked how Jaswal revealed Maya’s death. In some communities, there are things people just don’t talk about and it felt real that this community wouldn’t talk about Maya’s death. I liked how it kept coming up and we slowly learned more about her and her life with Jaggy and what she was like. It gave her a lot of layers and the more we got, the more obvious it was that something was wrong in what we’d learned early on. I won’t give any more away here, but it was very well paced.

I thought Nikki’s romance with Jason seemed forced. I don’t think she needed a romance to feel completed in this story so I was a little upset that it was added in. I think Nikki’s growth would have been as meaningful and stark without Jason in the mix.

The audiobook was narrated by Meera Syal and I think she did a wonderful job of telling the story. She did a great variety of voices for the widows and Nikki (I wasn’t a huge fan of her Jason American voice, but I can get over that). With so many woman talking over each other at times, it was a big task and I think she carried it out well.

Nikki is very stuck between two cultures and this story is a great exploration of that. She begins by rejecting a lot of the elements of her parents culture and trying to completely embrace her location’s culture. By the end, she seems to have found a happy middle ground where her understanding of her parents culture has increased and she feels more comfortable and accepted. She gains a level of understanding with her mother and sister that she wasn’t going to find without this acceptance and it’s helped her repair a stressed relationship with her late father in the process.

Writer’s Takeaway: This book reminds me why stories by minority writers are so needed and should be celebrated. I don’t live in the UK and I knew nothing about the Southall minority population! My city has similar enclaves and I now want to see if there are books celebrating their cultures and amplify those amazing voices. I’m so glad Jaswal wrote about this group so their vibrance can be shared.

An enjoyable read that taught me a lot. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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