In Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal, 22-year-old Nikki goes to the Southall temple to post a marriage notice for her sister and she spots an opening to teach creative writing courses for women in the community. However, she is shocked to learn the women in the class do not know how to write at all. Determined to make it work, she purchases books for the class but a book of erotica meant for her sister is discovered in her bag. One of the women in the class reads the stories to the other women and they are far more interested in these stories than their ABCs.
Word gets out about what is going on at the center amongst others in the Sikh community and more women want to be a part of the fun, but the women must be discreet and conceal their actions from the community’s “moral police”. By accepting this teaching position, Nikki becomes reacquainted with the community and the dark secrets it conceals.
Spoiler Alert: This review will contain plot and character spoilers. Please continue reading at your own discretion.
Differing perspectives on arranged marriage
One topic in this story was arranged marriages. Nikki and her sister, Mindi, disagreed on this topic. Mindi was ready for marriage and trusted this process would help her find the right man while Nikki thought it took away a woman’s right to choose.
I can see how the arranged marriage appealed to Mindi. She saw how well this had worked for her parents and she did not want to waste time. She wanted to directly connect with men who were ready for marriage and focus on overall compatibility. Mindi choosing to go this route is important because it shows how arranged marriage is not always forced and is sometimes embraced by young adults.
On the other hand, I can understand why Nikki disagrees with the practice. Jaswal showed the negative side of arranged marriages through the widows. While some couples had the freedom to choose their partners, others were forced together. Some of the widows in Nikki’s class had no choice in who or when they married, which resulted in uncomfortable matches and being married before they were ready. A couple of Nikki’s students suffered at the hands of their husbands physically and emotionally, leaving them bitter or unhappy long after their husband’s passed.
The widows and their stories
I loved the widows! Nikki thought they would be more chaste, but they were quite lively and entertaining. The book of erotic stories opened them up in the class and they shared their own experiences and fictional stories. I was glad they did this because it gave them something to be excited about. The quote below is a less than excited response to learning about consonants from one of the students.
‘Oh, not that bloody thing,’ Arvinder said, ‘A for apple, B for boy? Don’t treat me like a child, Nikki.”Page 62
While learning the alphabet after the age of 65 does not sound thrilling, they engaged in the lessons for the rewarding story time that followed. They got a sense of self-fulfillment and pride from expressing their ideas and I am not sure they would have found this feeling anywhere else.
The erotic stories do not make up a majority of the novel, but several narratives are sprinkled throughout. The stories themselves were not all the same. Some of them were more romantic and light while others were more graphic. I do appreciate Jaswal giving each story a different style to reflect the fantasies of the woman who created it.
Kulwinder’s grief and guilt
Kulwinder, who had hired Nikki to teach, was dealing with the loss of her only child, Maya. Although she was pushing for more equality for the women at the center, the women were not very warm to her. Kulwinder did have a cold and judgmental demeanor that I did not like, but I understood where it was coming from as I kept reading. She was not just grieving for Maya but was haunted by her own guilt. This served as an unexpected mystery in the story as I looked for clues of what happened to Maya.
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.Page 40
Jaswal showed how Maya’s death changed different parts of Kulwinder’s life. She and her husband no longer went for evening walks together and she did not feel comfortable stopping for conversations with other women during these walks. At various times, she would suddenly be reminded of Maya and the small moments she would not have with her again. These are often the moments we take for granted with our loved ones and the moments we’ll miss the most when they are gone.
The eye-catching title and cover art for this novel were enough to pique my interest, but I continued reading because I truly enjoyed the characters. This did not feel like it was only Nikki’s story, but the stories of many other women tied together. This story was more dramatic than I thought it would be, but Jaswal included some humor to take some of the edge off. Overall, I enjoyed this book and will definitely read it again.
Let me know what you think of this story in the comment section! Are there any parts that stuck out to you? If you have not read the book, do you think you will in the future?