Balli Kaur Jaswal’s teasingly entitled and intricately plotted novel incorporates multiple storylines with elements of rom-com, mystery, and family saga. The main protagonist, Nikki, is a 22-year-old, single, independent-minded university drop-out in London. She lives alone above the pub where she works while she searches for her calling, and for love. In the way of adult children everywhere, she is breaking her parents’ hearts with her choices. But her parents are Punjabi immigrants to Britain, and so as well as negotiating all the usual intergenerational pitfalls, Nikki must also negotiate diverging cultural expectations, both between herself and her family, and also between herself and the wider Punjabi community.
Nikki stumbles into a second, part-time job at the Sikh temple in Southall—a predominantly Punjabi area of London. She thinks she’s been hired to teach creative writing to Punjabi women, but only widows show up to her class and, apart from one, Sheena, they are not literate in English; they need adult literacy classes, not creative writing classes.
The widows find a book Nikki has bought as a joke: Red Velvet: Pleasurable Stories for Women. From the snippets Kaur Jaswal provides it sounds dire, but the widows don’t think so. Sheena reads some of it to them, and they find it inspiring. They convince Nikki to let them spend her classes telling one another erotic stories.
Once Kaur Jaswal has set this up, she then intersperses the widows’ erotic stories through the rest of the novel. Most of them can perhaps best be summed up as: reader, he ravished me. One story, however, features Meera, a disappointed middle-aged wife, and Rita, her husband’s younger brother’s beautiful young bride—they all live together in the same house. Meera and Rita slip between the sheets, for a little lesbian action.
But the content of the widows’ erotic stories is of course less important than who is telling them. Kaur Jaswal again and again stresses the disregard of older women in general, and of widows in particular, in the Punjabi community. In Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, she gives voices to women who are generally voiceless, and ignored, and she lets them talk about sex, to boot. Any reader will cheer her on as she crashes through conventions and insists every woman, even if she appears invisible to the world at large, has a story worth telling, and can tell stories worth hearing, and should be heard, whatever she chooses as the subject of her stories.
All the widows are enthusiastic about the new direction their class has taken, apart from Tarampal, whom the other widows treat warily.
Tarampal is one of the novel’s most interesting characters. She is first presented as an uptight spoilsport. Kaur Jaswal then twists our sympathies by revealing that, shockingly, poor Tarampal had an arranged marriage, at age 10. But rather than sentimentally allowing Tarampal to be transformed from bitch to pussycat, Kaur Jaswal soon reveals she is not only uptight, but also spiteful, exploitative, and worse. As to how exactly she is worse, Kaur Jaswal keeps a surprise up her sleeve, and it would be unfair to reveal it in a review, but it causes the reader to re-evaluate Tarampal yet again.
Meanwhile, there is evidently some difficult history between Tarampal, and one of her neighbors, Kulwinder, the woman who hired Nikki to teach at the Southall temple. Kulwinder is doing her best to promote women’s interests at the temple, in the face of disinterest from the men who run the place, whilst also attempting to assimilate the death of her daughter, Maya, in mysterious circumstances.
In the face of considerable danger to herself, Nikki manages to uncover what happened to Maya, and, ultimately, to get justice for her. I hope it’s not revealing too much to say Kaur Jaswal shines a light on honour killings, and domestic violence against women in the Punjabi community. Here again, she is crashing through conventions that demand disregard and silence, and here again readers will cheer her on.
The end of the novel satisfactorily closes all the various plotlines with happy endings—or in any case with the endings happiest under the circumstances. I particularly liked the ending provided for one of the “widows”, Manjeet. She has in fact only been pretending to be a widow to hide her shame at being jettisoned by her husband for a younger woman. By the close of the novel, she has decided to put aside her faux widow’s weeds, and to strike out on her own.
As well as being audacious, and generous, Kaur Jaswal’s latest novel is also often very funny, with good jokes throughout, and also plenty of jokes that aren’t really jokes. When Nikki takes the job in the temple she stays on at the pub because: “The pay for empowering women through narrative would not cover her living expenses.” When a woman is discussing the role of ghee as a lubricant, she explains the need to sneak it into small containers during cooking, under the nose of a mother-in-law, “Otherwise it was challenging to get big drums of ghee into the bedroom without the rest of the family seeing.” She has a lot of fun with the way Punjabi women talk about penisis, by referring to vegetables: cucumbers, aubergines, and so on.
Kaur Jaswal’s language is vivid. Tarampal rants about the “dark territory of honour.” Kulwinder’s office is ransacked, and, afterwards, one of her desk drawers “hung open lewdly, like a tongue.” From a distance the widows, in their white dupattas, could be “scrunched up pieces of paper.”
Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows would be perfect for an all-women book group, but you have to hope it finds a readership amongst the people who perhaps need to read it most: men.