Learning to Speak Up for Exactly What You Want

Review of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017)

by Inez Tan

 

Nikki, a twenty-two-year-old British Punjabi Sikh woman, wants a career she’s truly passionate about. So far, all she’s done is upset her traditional family by dropping out of law school. Her options don’t look good: as she writes in a text to her best friend, “Need a job to get experience, need experience to get a job – madness!” When the ailing pub where she works looks to be in danger of closing, Nikki takes a job at a Sikh temple in the South Asian enclave of Southall, in London, teaching a women’s writing class. The idea of empowering women to write their memoirs fills her with naïve hope: “She had contributed a piece to the UK Fem Fighters’ blog, comparing her experiences with catcalling in Delhi and London, which had enjoyed three days on the Most Read Posts list. Surely she could give writing tips to some temple women?”

Before long, Nikki discovers that Kulwinder, the Community Development Director of the temple, has misled her about her students: most of the widows who’ve signed up for the class aren’t even literate. But Nikki is even more shocked when the proper and pious-looking widows compose an erotic story together and read it aloud during class. “It’s far more fun to discuss the things we miss,” one widow says. “Or what we were never given in the first place,” another replies drily.

The titular erotic stories for – and by – Punjabi widows are going to be on most readers’ minds, so let’s talk about those. Initially, the stories are light and humorous, with all the cheerful gusto one expects in amateur erotica: “One day [a husband and wife] were driving along a lonely road and they were running out of petrol. It was dark outside and they were scared. It was also cold, so the man stopped the car and hugged the woman so she would stop shivering. She was actually pretending to shiver. She wanted to feel the man’s body.” Gradually, the stories grow increasingly inventive, mixing details from the widows’ daily lives with their lavish fantasies. One features a woman who ties a mechanic’s wrists to the wing mirror of her car with her dupatta before having sex with him on the bonnet. Another, teasingly previewed only as “the tailor one,” isn’t fully revealed until many chapters later. The more serious stories include revealing – even incriminating – personal details about the women who composed them.

To Nikki, who struggles between wanting to subvert the conservative Southall community and wanting to belong, the widows’ stories come to represent the empowerment through self-expression that she’d imagined herself bringing. It can be life-changing for underrepresented or minority groups to see characters like themselves in literature for the first time: when Nikki’s mother hears about the stories, she’s indignant (at least outwardly), yet she can’t help but remark, “They’re that detailed? I’ve never come across stories like that with our people in them.” Sheena, the youngest and most progressive of the widows, tells Nikki proudly over a glass of wine, “These storytelling sessions are good fun but I think I’ve also learned to speak up for what I want. Exactly what I want.”

Of course, not everyone in the community takes such a positive view of the stories. To Kulwinder, they’re subversive filth. But the real trouble begins when the stories attract the attention of the Brothers, a group of unemployed and bored young men who devote themselves to keeping women in line, ostensibly to protect the community’s honor. “People are afraid of them,” Sheena confides in Nikki, “but also find them useful for keeping their daughters in line. You don’t want to complain too loudly because you don’t know who feels obligated to them.”

At this point, Erotic Stories shifts from inspirational classroom story/romantic comedy to investigative thriller, with Nikki as the accidental sleuth. As she slowly gains acceptance into the Southall Sikh community, she uncovers more and more shady details about the deaths of several young Punjabi women, including Kulwinder’s daughter Maya. As Sheena tells Nikki, “You weren’t expecting a complicated story. Nobody does. If a girl is killed, it’s unimaginable that her loved ones would have a hand in it. People don’t consider it unless they know what goes on in this community.” The sensational climax of the novel will satisfy some readers. Others may wish it weren’t there to compete with the other subplots: for example, the troubled romance between Nikki and her love interest doesn’t get quite enough space to develop in complexity, nor does Nikki’s sister Mindi’s pursuit of an arranged marriage, which is the event that sets the whole book in motion.

That said, the novel’s pleasures are many. Jaswal excels at portraying the complicated relationships that hold families and communities together, especially through the tensions of different generations and cultural upbringings:

After [Nikki’s] Dad died, Auntie Geeta had come over to visit, black rivulets of mascara running down her cheeks. She wanted to mourn with Mum and was surprised that Mum remained dry-eyed, having done her crying in private. When she noticed a bubbling pot of curry on the stove, she became indignant. “You’re eating? I had nothing after my husband died. My sons had to force it into my mouth.” Feeling pressured, Mum refrained from eating the curry and then wolfed it down after Auntie Geeta left.

Or consider the following:

Kulwinder handed over her passport. “British,” she informed the attendant, who returned her passport and walked away, pretending not to hear her. This had happened before. She had grumbled to Maya about it, who didn’t understand. What do you expect them to think, Mum? Maya would ask, staring pointedly at Kulwinder’s clothes in a way that made her wonder how it was possible to love your daughter and dislike her so much at the same time.

Moreover, Jaswal really shines when it comes to showing moments of tenderness, especially the ones that go unseen. Of Kulwinder, in mourning for her daughter, she writes, “Sometimes she got carried away and imagined little moments of Maya’s life as it would be – mundane things like paying for groceries or replacing the batteries in her television remote control. The smaller the details, the harder it hit that Maya would never do these things.” In another instance, the morning after a married couple reconciles, the husband makes his wife chai for the first time, noting, “You have made it every morning for the last twenty-seven years.” Some of the minor characters have the best moments: Nikki’s mother, searching her kitchen for her sieve, “remembered having to throw away the one her mother had given her to take to England after Nikki and Mindi used it to scoop their goldfish out of its tank. She felt a pang of sadness. What was home without her family?”

The prose is sometimes less meticulous. In a key passage in the penultimate chapter, where Nikki walks through Notting Hill reflecting on the past few months, her conclusions don’t quite match up with her observations:

In the park, tourists weaved purposefully between the more evenly paced joggers and dog walkers. What people wanted from London was all here – the lush green gardens, the majestic domes and church spires, the black cabs busily circling. It was regal and mysterious; she could understand anybody’s impatience to be part of it. She was reminded of the widows. They would have known little of this London before their journey to this country, and upon their arrival, they would have known even less. Britain equaled a better life and they would have clung to this knowledge even as this life confounded and remained foreign. Every day in this new country would have been an exercise in forgiveness.

As readers would know by now, the widows actually rarely leave Punjabi Southall. (A comedic scene ensues when several widows venture out to visit Nikki at her pub in Shepherd’s Bush, with one of the oldest demanding, “What if they pour [alcohol] into our tea while we’re not looking? Hmm?”) They’re certainly not “impatient” to be part of this side of London, and it’s difficult to grant that Nikki would have been reminded of them here, except for the sake of the narrative. In place of a more complex exploration of these characters’ lives and motivations, which the novel has taught us to expect, we’re left unsatisfied with this quick sketch of “lush green gardens” and the shorthand of “a better life.” Still, the last sentence is beautiful and fraught, and it’s the one I’ve been thinking about most since finishing the book. There are plenty of scenes in the novel that would convincingly lead Nikki and readers to that line; the book would be stronger if this scene, too, were one of them.

Erotic Stories brings big concerns into a medium-sized book that spans multiple moods and genres. It doesn’t always manage to do it all. But between the scope of the novel’s ambitions and its many bright moments, like Nikki, you will never see Punjabi widows the same way again.

 

Inez Tan is a fiction writer and poet based in Irvine, CA, and Singapore. Her writing has appeared in Rattle, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Softblow, and the anthology A Luxury We Must Afford. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Irvine, California. ineztan.com