The April Meeting of The Book Babes Club held at Cork & Olive set the scene for a spirited discussion about our glimpse into the world of immigrant culture in London through the eyes of Punjabi widows. Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal opened our eyes to a way of life and thinking that almost seems counterintuitive to a modern-day woman living in a Western culture. The novel follows a group of widows from the Punjab region of the India who practice the religion Sikhism and live in Southall, a suburban district of west London populated by Indian immigrants.
These women gather weekly at the local temple that houses the Sikh Community Association for what was advertised as a class to learn to write English. Their instructor, Nikki, is a modern, twenty-something Punjabi living in East London. Nikki accepts the job thinking she would be teaching story writing to widows. Unbeknownst to Nikki, these widows are illiterate in English and have no interest in learning to write English. They want to tell titillating stories about their imagined sex lives and their deepest desires. These so-called “English classes” become very popular among the widows as more join the class wanting to share their sexy stories. Nikki is in the midst of her own struggle to find direction and romantic love in her life, after dropping out of law school and refusing to go the route of an arranged marriage as her sister Mindi intends to do. Nikki is on her own quest for independence from Punjabi traditions and cultural expectations, especially the practice of arranged marriage. She draws courage and inspiration from the widows’ act of defiance—their erotic storytelling that embraces their sexuality, a taboo subject in their culture.
The “writing class” becomes a place of empowerment for these widows who are marginalized by their own culture. Many discover their voice and begin to stand up for their wants and needs. Meanwhile, a group of religious Sikh men known as “The Brothers,” the self-anointed morality police, seeks to intimidate these women, silence their voices and shut down their classes.
The power structure in this patriarchal society is threatened by the Punjabi widows and long-held cultural beliefs and practices are called into question by a mysterious death among the group. The widows are keeping a secret from Nikki. The truth of that secret threatens to unravel a way of life as they know it.
The book crescendos to a shocking end, prompting readers to question inferences they make about others’ thoughts, intentions and emotions. We all have unconscious biases and this book challenges us to embrace these widows’ ways of thinking and being in the world.
One debate during our book club meeting was over reasons why the widows didn’t assimilate into London’s westernized culture but rather chose to live insular, never learning English, dressing in their native attire, socializing only with their kind. Several members of our book club wondered what our own lives would be like if we had entered into arranged marriages. We also questioned whether we continue to live in a patriarchal society, a Westernized version of male dominance in our professional and personal lives. A final observation about Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is the author’s mastery of writing exotica. The widows’ stories are almost poetic with carefully chosen vocabulary to tastefully titillate without being disrespectful or repugnant. Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is an intelligent and provocative choice for a book club read that will inspire spirited discussions and have us examining our own beliefs about life, love, marriage and friendship.
Other books by Balli Kaur Jaswal include: