Review of The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal (USA: Harper Collins, 2019)
by Kyle Callert
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s second novel published in America and fourth overall, begins with Sita, the family matriarch, sitting in a London hospital bed and writing a final request to her three daughters. After her death, Sita wants her daughters to take her ashes to India and scatter them into a river. There are other obligations, too, of course, little pilgrimages meant to bring the sisters closer both to their heritage and to each other, but the one thing the sisters absolutely must do together is to scatter their mother’s ashes. Writing this letter, however, proves difficult for Sita, and not only because she is dying. She starts and stops in frustration, unable to strike the balance needed between honesty and desire—desire for her children to love each other, and the honesty required to recognize the many hurdles in their way. This struggle, an equal need for what seem diametrically opposed, is quintessential to The Unlikely Adventures, the driving force beneath this heartfelt novel.
Sita’s three daughters, as far apart in age as they are in personality, are the novel’s three protagonists, and the third-person point of view swiftly rotates between them. Rajni, the oldest, is uptight and forward. Jezmeen, the middle child and struggling actress, is stuck in a state of flux and alcoholism. The youngest, Shirina, is timid and placid, as much a mystery to the reader as she is to her sisters. Each arrive in India with her own set of problems at home. For Rajni, it’s her 18-year-old son—shortly before she left, he announced he’s fathering a baby with his 36-year-old girlfriend, effectively derailing Rajni’s hopes for his education. Jezmeen, after a recent bout of bad publicity, is in a career crisis she’s desperate to keep hidden from her sisters. As for Shirina, she’s in a traditional marriage with an overbearing matriarch that shows ominous signs of abuse. Throughout their journey in India, these conflicts circle and brush against the sisters before radiating outward, creating a sprawling commentary on race, gender, class, religion, and what it means to contend with identity.
All this is wrapped in a light and agreeable prose. Humor is constant, but rarely, if ever, forced. The dynamic between the sisters, the source of much of the humor, is as entertaining as it is fraught, as is the misalignment between their English sensibilities and the reality of the subcontinent. For example, although there is something amusing in Rajni’s squeamishness toward the local cuisines, the harsh reality of life in India pulses underneath. In one scene the sisters struggle to find cabs and reliable clothing, in the next they’re faced with a bleak poverty, and the violence of an honor killing.
Likewise, while the sisters may bicker as only siblings can, coming at each other with barbed and witty jabs, there is also a deep mystery to their relationship—dark, unknowable territories left in the wake of their branching lives. As adults, they guard parts of themselves that they never had as children; Rajni doesn’t tell the sisters about her relationship with Sita, Shirina doesn’t admit the extent of her abusive relationship with her mother-in-law, and none of the sisters will confront what happened the day their mother died. As we saw with their mother, the sisters have a desire to wall themselves off, even though they wish for greater honesty.
The sisters’ search for these honest territories provides most of the novel’s suspense. By frequent and often vague references to the secret traumas of the sisters’ lives, the prose guides the reader to anticipate revelation —at the end of the book, we assume that we will leave with some understanding of the truth. Rest assured, this does happen. We learn what the sisters have been through, the things they’ve been too afraid to tell each other, the secrets that have formed them. This narrative technique is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it adds a brisk propulsion to the novel, a momentum that only increases as the references become blunter to match the novel's growing complexity. On the other, the deliberate vagueness can sometimes seem overly oblique and gratuitous. It is a calculated decision to withhold the sisters’ secrets, as they run the risk of growing narratively redundant, and even annoying to a reader who desires a more straightforward plot. It is fortunate that the novel's tightly composed scenes render this technique mostly a success.
Take, for example, Jezmeen’s thrilling encounter with a protest. Early on in the trip, Jezmeen breaks away from her sisters, partly due to their dysfunction, partly due to problems stemming from her alcoholism. They were supposed to meet at The India Gate to watch the sunrise over Delhi, one of Sita’s less ambitious hopes for her daughters to bond. Arriving late and well after sunrise, Jezmeen finds not her sisters, but a protest for women’s rights in India. At first, she is swept into the crowd because she’s mistaken for another, more popular Indian actress back in London. After hearing the stories that the women tell her—stories about rape, kidnapping, murders—Jezmeen is genuinely moved. When the rally organizers push her to speak, when she has to respond to the victims’ honesty, she makes a stirring proclamation. Wisely, Jaswal does not tell us what Jezmeen says, but rather shows us the aftermath. The sweaty bodies of the protestors pushed together by the police, the steely threat of guns and simmering violence, the cramped police van, the mystery of a foreign jail. Through tactile descriptions, Jaswal conveys the struggle for women’s rights in India in a visceral gut punch.
Likewise, later in the novel, when Rajni and Jezmeen take a day trip to the India-Pakistan border for the changing of the guards, the reader is given the full spectacle—the crowds, the music, the barbed-wire fence, the militarism, the dancing, and the comparatively empty Pakistani side of the border:
The music on the India side was a deafening boom, so loud that the speakers’ static drowned out the lyrics. The show of patriotism began shortly after Rajni and Jezmeen sat down, schoolchildren racing along the bleachers and to the stage area with Indian flags. When they reached the stage, they danced and clapped in a circle, waving to the audience, who cheered them on… On the Pakistan side, no dancing. There was some faint music, subdued and drowned out by the bass on the Indian side. The bleachers were only half full. Rajni remembered the uncles so smugly commenting on Pakistan’s lackluster turnout back then too.
In one graceful movement, the disparity and conflict between the two countries is brought to life. Jaswal’s talent in these moments goes beyond mere scene-setting—memories are jogged, true colors are revealed, and, perhaps most importantly, vital context is given to the sisters’ lives.
In tightly constructed scenes such as these, Jaswal dramatizes the potentially abstract issues of feminism, religion, nationalism, and class. Unlikely Adventures is a novel precisely built to navigate such dilemmas. Nothing is easily solvable; nothing is black and white. In the end, the sister’s problems still exist in one form or another. Some of their material conditions have improved, others have not. Jezmeen, for instance, gets an acting job, but Rajni’s son is still having a child. What has changed is their respective ways of approaching their problems. With renewed effort, the sisters find honesty and desire can be brought closer together.
Kyle Callert is a writer from Detroit. He is Assistant Fiction Editor at Ninth Letter. His website is kylecallert.com.