“Nobody eavesdrops an old lady chatter. To them it’s all one buzzing noise. They think we’re discussing our knee pain and funeral plans.”
This remark, made by one of the sassy old ladies that people Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, is both funny and profound, for it speaks, as does the novel, of a social phenomenon that is rarely evoked: the invisibilisation of old women, and particularly, of widows in the Punjabi community — for, even if this is a rather wide phenomenon, the novel is set within the London Punjabi community and it is these women first and foremost that Balli Kaur Jaswal invites us to meet and listen to, in her bold and comical novel.
Even though, in the first pages, I did not really tune to the casual tone and the informal dialogues (I might have been guilty of academic arrogance at that point), Balli Kaur Jaswal deftly swept me off my feet and before I knew it, forgetting all my reservations about the simplistic style, I was deeply caring for the stories of these old ladies and the fascinating mystery I saw unravelling before my eyes.
But first, let’s give it a short summary, so that we know what this is about. The book opens on a conversation between Nikki, the “daughter-gone-bad” of a traditional Punjabi family, and her sister Mindi who wants Nikki to help her find a husband for an arranged marriage. While Nikki is trying all her might to escape her Punjabi origin and culture, Mindi “embraces her culture”. This sets the tone of the novel: humorous but also imbued with deeper issues such as the transcultural adaptation of immigrants’ children and the question of the power of women and what power or freedom actually consists in.
To help her sister, Nikki sets off to the local temple to pin Mindi’s profile on the marriage board. Here, another flyer catches her eye, advertising for an instructor to teach women creative writing. While on the first class, a baffled Nikki discovers that none of the women knows how to write, the class still becomes a safe space of creative writing where these widows (one of them still in her thirties) express their sexual and erotic fantasies.
By allowing the reader to follow Nikki and the few widows who are bold enough to share their stories into the classroom, Balli Kaur Jaswal invites us in this safe space, in which we discover that old ladies do not talk about, or think of, their “knee pain” only, that old ladies actually have desires, longings, regrets and fantasies, just as young women do… They are even more daring than Nikki, who lives freely, in a “westernized fashion”, as her elders would say: she lives on her own, she works as a bartender, she smokes, she doesn’t cover her head, she has had sex an incalculable number of times, and doesn’t have the remotest desire to find a husband and settle down. However free Nikki thinks she is, she is astonished by the boldness and the sassiness of the widows, with whom she soon creates a bond that transcends their generational differences.
However, the classroom is a safe space only as long as the Brothers, a group of self-appointed “guardians of the morality of the Temple”, threatening and dangerous, do not learn the truth about the writing classes. This ominous threat obscures the comical aspect of the novel with a darker thread: this tight-knit community in which Punjabi immigrants find a warm shelter when they move to Britain actually hides horrifying secrets and Nikki, with all her passion for justice and feminist values, will put herself in danger by trying to understand the strange circumstances under which a young woman of her age died a few months ago.
So, you see, so far, you have quite a lot of elements to enjoy: funny and original sex talks, a modern character encountering her traditional elders, with all the communication clashes that can follow, girls talk too (Nikki shares this unexpected experience with her best friend and their text messages are comical, if a bit simple), romance (I won’t spoil anything but yes, there is also romance), aaaaand a murder mystery.
Add to this the underlying issues that we find in many transcultural contemporary novels and you’ll have a book that is right up my alley, and right up yours if you loved The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri) and Brick Lane (Monica Ali).
First question: feminism. As the two sisters develop a different approach to their culture, one finally wonders who is freer: is it Mindi, who feels free and confident in an arranged marriage and in her culture, or Nikki, who tries all her might to escape it but cannot help but seeing the world in black and white? And what to say about the widows? These sometimes very old women, sometimes still very young, wear widow veils and will be confined to their widow identity until their last day. Yet, if not all the characters are happy with this (understandably so, for a woman who is not yet forty), they embrace their role fully and still find freedom in it: Nikki’s class gives them their freedom, as, paradoxically, does their invisibility. As the opening quote of this article suggests, no one listens to old women, and this social invisibility is precisely what allows them to engage in licentious conversations that no one will consider overhearing. It is because they are invisible and certainly not morally dangerous that no one imagines what can be said between the walls of the classroom. No one is interested in old women, no one imagines that they still have desires and fantasies. It was a bold and beautiful move for Balli Kaur Jaswall to bring this subject to light, and bringing visibility, or at least a voice, to otherwise invisible and silent women.
The second topic that underlies the novel is that of the empowering of women. It is of paramount importance for Nikki to feel useful in what she does. When she takes this job, she advocates strongly for it in front of her mother and sister by saying that she is helping empowering women, and though at this stage she seriously doubts that she will, this is exactly what happens. Sharing these erotic stories together, the women create friendships, secrets are revealed, but also, the shared feeling that together, they are not as powerless as they think they are; that together, maybe, they could defy the Brothers who terrify all the women of the community. Writing or sharing stories becomes a means of empowering because women who have been silent all their lives, often living in the shadow of their husbands, discover that they, too, have things to say, that these stories are meaningful, that they have a voice that is worth listening to.
And they also admit that sex, too, is empowering. That it is okay for women, even in the most traditional communities, and whatever their age or social status, to have desires, whatever they be (a sexy garage mechanic, a forbidden lover, another woman…).
The novel also revolves around the detective story genre. The reader is made aware, early in the novel, that a young woman died in circumstances that are unclear, and her mother, months after her daughter’s death, is still receiving threatening, anonymous phone calls at night. Nikki, driven by a strong sense of justice, innocently but stubbornly, asks disturbing questions to unravel the mystery of the young woman’s death, thus putting herself at risk. What we discover in Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is that the Punjabi community, which was created to help Indian immigrants to cope with the trials of moving to Britain, also has its share of dangerous and extreme members for whom honor is the only thing to preserve, sometimes at the expense of human lives. A whole new face of the community is presented here: instead of a tight-knit group of people who live together to make life easier for one another, we discover a community that is fragmented by different tendencies, the most traditional of them struggling to come to terms with the modernisation and liberation of human relations, and the necessary changes brought about by life in a Western country. The murder mystery of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is not just here as a suspenseful background. Balli KaurJaswal uses it to shed light on the terrible aspects and consequences of the resistance to the adaptation to a new culture and to new times.
No pun intended but I felt that what Jaswal was doing with this book was lifting the veil. She gives voice to voiceless, silent, invisible women and also throws lights upon unbearable community practices, thus lifting a taboo on a community that seems so closely tied together. Sure, the style of the novel is often casual, which makes for an easy read (but why should that be a terrible fault? I sure found it perfect to begin my summer reads!), but the novel acquires depth as we get more and more acquainted with the different characters, their fears, their secrets and the battles they still struggle to find the strength to fight. It might not be a literary masterpiece but it is definitely a book that will keep you hooked, and will make you think. For me, it’s enough to declare it is a good book and I warmly recommend it!