Review of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal (London: Harper Collins, 2017)
by YZ Chin
Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is an immigrant novel in conversation with a canon that consists of contemporary classics like The Joy Luck Club, White Teeth, and more. There is the trope of inter-generational conflict, yes, between immigrant parents who settle down in a new country (often more economically and politically powerful) and their offspring, who struggle to reconcile the norms of their environment with what is termed the “traditional values” of their parents’ home cultures. The unabashed exploration of sex and its pleasures is one obvious hallmark that distinguishes Balli Kaur Jaswal’s immigrant novel. Where the novel excels in similar ways to the contemporary classics is in the nuance of differences observed in her large cast of characters.
Clashes exist not simply between immigrant parents and their native-born children (in this case, British). Instead, the angles of conflict are multi-directional. Main character Nikki spars with her sister Mindi about whether arranged marriage, in adapted form or otherwise, is a good idea. When Nikki lands a job teaching what’s advertised as a storytelling workshop at a gurdwara, her students appear to all be widows, but they are not in the least a uniform lot. In fact, disagreements arise rapidly among the widows and with Nikki about the direction that the workshop should take – should it focus on basic English literacy, or be a literary showcase for the widows’ erotic fantasies? In English or in Punjabi? Is sex between two women acceptable in the stories? What about infidelity? Views and beliefs differ; moral boundaries are challenged and occasionally reshaped.
What unites the myriad characters is a keen desire for intimacy, sexual or otherwise. This is apparent in the widows who screw up courage to share their erotic fantasies, some of them deeply personal. In fact, transgressions and family secrets reveal themselves in veiled ways through these stories within a story, as in the case of Arvinder and Preetam, a mother and daughter pair, who attend the class. If there are stereotypes, then Balli Kaur Jaswal has fun with them, as when Nikki sees through the stereotypical guilt trip that Kulwinder, the older woman who hired Nikki for the writing class, lays on Nikki. She recognizes it as the same tactic favored by her own mother, and Nikki both tenderly capitulates as well as calls out Kulwinder on her pretense:
‘It’s just my stomach,’ Kulwinder said.
‘Yes, like my mother’s migraines,’ Nikki said wryly. ‘Triggered during arguments and then mysteriously cured when she wins.’
The novel succeeds in granting both major and secondary characters plenty of individuality, from the widows to Nikki’s boss and co-workers (immigrants all but one) at her other job bartending in a pub. Where the book becomes jarring is in its treatment of chilling subjects like murder, specifically honor killings. The overall tone of the novel is light-hearted, and the pacing is fast. This results in a kind of mild whiplash as we dance with little transition from the revelation of horrific acts to the distractions of romantic attraction, as when the youngest of the widows, Sheena, is shown talking about the suspicious death of her best friend, but a page later she is humming along to a song to relax, and a page after that she is completely flustered because of a love interest’s appearance. There are times when the book holds back from epiphany, too, as when it hovers over a description of the widows’ hardships, but doesn’t quite spell it out:
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.
The passage is beautifully written. If only we were given more about what the “exercise in forgiveness” really translates to.
Now I’m going to insert the “I” into this book review and say something possibly contentious: the movie Wonder Woman is the most popular immigrant story of recent times (in the U.S. at least). A naïf from distant lands arrives in the heart of London and has to be shown the ropes of “civilization.” Her staunch belief in the existence of a God of War is repeatedly pooh-poohed by the more “logical” Londoners. Is the movie not an immigrant tale? I think not. It is more of an expatriate story. The distinguishing factor is power. Like immigrants, expats migrate to other countries, often for work and sometimes to “help,” as Wonder Woman does. But we do not call expats “immigrants” because they command respect and wield privilege, and as such they more often than not control the narrative.
Perhaps this is why Wonder Woman did not quite resonate with me. I appreciate the milestone for women in movies that it represents, but I did not experience the rush of exhilaration that I could do anything I wanted or kick anyone’s ass. Rather, I felt a bit left out. I will never gain the kind of superpower conferred by being born of a god, which from certain viewpoints is not that dissimilar from, say, inheriting wealth and power accumulated through generations of privilege. I did not feel empowered by the movie because I did not see myself in Diana Prince, who was destroying buildings while saving lives within the first week of her departure from home.
In contrast, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows did for me what Wonder Woman could not. The book acknowledges that affecting change as immigrants takes time – generations, in fact. It confronts the powerlessness that some newcomers experience, not just in terms of the new country, but also within their own communities in that country. And in spite of it all, the book offers the hope and redemption possible when kick-started by small acts of kindness and generosity: an errand run for a sister; encouragement, at the risk of punishment, of those whose desires have been repressed; standing up for others in the face of sexism or racism. As when the book itself says, “these women who had started one quiet rebellion could come together to fight a bigger injustice” (the injustice left vague, unspecified), or as when Sheena confides to Nikki:
‘These storytelling sessions are good fun but I think I’ve also learned how to speak up for what I want. Exactly what I want.’
Nikki remembered the unexpected rush of confidence she felt when she stood up to Garry and Viktor. ‘Me too,’ she said. ‘And I didn’t think I needed any help in that department.’
At its heart, the novel is about the thirst for love and human connection. There is the main love story between Nikki and Jason, a Californian transplant to London. Their courtship is not as compelling as the backstory of Nikki’s relationship with her deceased father, or the slow rekindling of Kulwinder’s relationship with her husband after their daughter’s death, but instead follows the well-trodden territory of blossoming love disrupted by well-meaning withholdings of truth a la Pride and Prejudice. However, Jason serves as yet another take on the immigrant story, this time from the viewpoint of a first-generation American living in London. Jason is representative of those children of immigrants who earlier in life succumb to familial pressure almost out of reflex, but then come to regret the big life decisions made under such pressure. And yet they also return again and again to the familiarity of their upbringing even when they run away. Jason first meets Nikki at the gurdwara where he has gone to give thanks for the remission of his mother’s cancer. At the same time he is unable to return home for fear of facing his family’s disapproval over his troubled personal life.
Other quests for love abound, such as Sheena’s tentative steps into a new, taboo relationship as a widow; Mindi’s desire to achieve compromise between an old-fashioned arranged marriage and the personal choice of a mate; Manjeet’s hope for reunion with her cheating husband to expunge her shameful faux-widowhood; and the yearning of strait-laced widow Tarampal for a son, transfigured into something more sinister.
Every day in this new country would have been an exercise in forgiveness.
Returning to the “exercise in forgiveness”—how are we to parse it? Who is the object of the forgiveness—the British racists like bar regular Steve who says things like “Chicken tikka masala” while bowing deeply? Or is it the Punjabi men who oppress the women in their community through various means, including by forming a band of moral police styling themselves The Brothers that patrols the neighborhood enforcing dress codes and curfews? And why call it an exercise in forgiveness, when elsewhere in the book there rings out a call-to-arms to fight back against the suppression of female pleasure and of truth? The answers are hard to find in the text itself.
No doubt the book can be read as feminist in its treatment of the female characters, who are not just lively and willful, but also given space to commit mistakes and be vulnerable. The stress on the importance of women coming together to overcome patriarchal constraints is unmistakable. But mostly the novel is women-forward without explicitly pointing out that it is men’s millennia-long chauvinism that is being fought in its pages. The unspecified “bigger injustice” mentioned earlier could be any number of these: Women as property; women as wayward creatures whose sexual appetites need to be cinched; women who are punished for daring to place truth above the community’s (i.e. the men’s) image; women gifted away as child brides. The novel skims over the surface of these somber topics, while arguably it could have been better served if they had been explored with more substance, and perhaps with more historical context. Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is, of course, a book that sets out to be charming and funny, and it succeeds mightily at that. Where it falters is in its enormous ambition; a serious take on the daily subjugation of women paired with charm and humor is exceedingly tough to pull off.
With all that said, I choose to read it as a superhero story, naiveté and all, written for our times and for people like me. And what a romp it is.
YZ Chin is the author of fiction collection Though I Get Home (Feminist Press, 2018), premier winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. Born and raised in Taiping, Malaysia, she now lives in New York. She works by day as a software engineer, and writes by night.