What is this about?: Women. Women who embrace who they are, as well as what their needs and desires are without being ashamed of them. And that is something any woman of any background or tradition should be able to do. And it’s about tradition, about breaking tradition and following it within the confines of a Punjabi community in London.
What else is this about?: A mystery, and an unexpected one at that. But, really it all ties together.
Blurb: A lively, sexy, and thought-provoking East-meets-West story about community, friendship, and women’s lives at all ages—a spicy and alluring mix of Together Tea and Calendar Girls.
Every woman has a secret life . . .
Nikki lives in cosmopolitan West London, where she tends bar at the local pub. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she’s spent most of her twenty-odd years distancing herself from the traditional Sikh community of her childhood, preferring a more independent (that is, Western) life. When her father’s death leaves the family financially strapped, Nikki, a law school dropout, impulsively takes a job teaching a “creative writing” course at the community centre in the beating heart of London’s close-knit Punjabi community.
Because of a miscommunication, the proper Sikh widows who show up are expecting to learn basic English literacy, not the art of short-story writing. When one of the widows finds a book of sexy stories in English and shares it with the class, Nikki realizes that beneath their white dupattas, her students have a wealth of fantasies and memories. Eager to liberate these modest women, she teaches them how to express their untold stories, unleashing creativity of the most unexpected—and exciting—kind.
As more women are drawn to the class, Nikki warns her students to keep their work secret from the Brotherhood, a group of highly conservative young men who have appointed themselves the community’s “moral police.” But when the widows’ gossip offers shocking insights into the death of a young wife—a modern woman like Nikki—and some of the class erotica is shared among friends, it sparks a scandal that threatens them all
This book. This glorious, glorious book.
Every family has their traditions, whether you’re Catholic, Hindu, Muslim or Punjabi. There are the fun kind, and there are the kind that …aren’t. What Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows does is to tell the story of complicated women in this Punjabi community – those who hold on to their traditions and those who are ready to break free of them. And, this could be any woman’s story.
When my father died, I don’t remember much of that time. But one of my clearest memories is of my mother telling me that my Gran had told her to not be treated like a widow – to not wear white and to not follow the traditions my Gran had to. And my mother never did wear white. But it brought home to me that “widow” meant something different to Hindus. It didn’t just mean a woman had lost her husband, it meant the woman was now different, with different expectations of her. And having gone through that herself, my Gran never wanted that for my mother.
The widows in this story are exactly that – they are different. They are looked at differently by the Punjabi community in which they live. Some are old, and some are barely into their 30s, but without a man or rather a husband they are different. Part of me felt like the community treated them as non-existent without a man.
And remarriage? Perish the thought. To an extent the women believe this is their lot in life and how they should behave to keep the peace in the community of South Hall where they live, but to each other, within their community of widows, they are these amazing, funny, vivacious women with so much to offer if only the world within which they live would realise it.
And into this world comes Nikki.
Nikki is aimless. She is 22, dropped out of law school much to the heartache of her parents, and when her father died, fled their home to live over a pub. I think she values herself as a Punjabi woman, but doesn’t agree with the restrictions on her life that being Punjabi places. Granted, her parents are more forward-thinking than most, but there are lines and Nikki steps over them.
Having lost her father soon after she dropped out of law school, she is plagued by guilt, believing she added to the stresses of his life, and might have contributed to his death. But she knows too she would never have been happy as a lawyer. She isn’t particularly happy as a barmaid but it’ll do until she figures her life out. Like teaching women a creative writing class was meant to bring in extra money for her, but turned into something else entirely.
She finds herself, at first, teaching literacy classes to women who have never had the chance to learn how to read and write because their responsibility was to get married.
Erotic stories for Punjabi widows
The word widow comes with its own connotations – sexless is a big part of that I think. As if without your husband you are not supposed to want love and to love someone in return. Much to Nikki’s surprise, within the walls of her classroom, she learns that these widows are anything but – these women didn’t stop living when their husbands died, they didn’t stop wanting pleasure or wanting to give it. Within her creative writing workshops as Nikki calls them, they let those parts of themselves out – and yes, there are actual erotic short stories to tantalise you within this book.
But those really pale in comparison to the reality of these women – these wonderfully funny, supportive women who are there for each other when no one else in their community will be. And Nikki does everything she can to ensure the classes can continue, hiding the reality of them from the very traditional minded Kulwinder, who organised them in the first place. She is part of the community centre board, and wants more money and attention to be given to the women of the community – and the success of her literacy classes was supposed to be the proof she needed for the men on the board to give her more for the women.
… and I dare you think of the word aubergine the same way after this. Nods. Or any vegetable for that matter!
Surprisingly, yes there’s a mystery to be had in his book. Kulwinder is grieving herself for her daughter. She arranged her marriage to a man she thought was a suitable groom, because that’s how things are done in their community. The marriage crumbled quickly, but Kulwinder did not support her daughter, instead giving her an impossible choice to make because that’s what she was taught to do.
Her daughter’s husband insists that it was suicide, but Kulwinder suspects differently, but is simply too afraid for her life and her husband’s to push it too far. This part of the narrative was an odd fit at first, before I realised just how it did fit in. After, all honour killings are the last thing I expected in a book like this.
This part works because Jaswal makes it an intimate story, showing us the people who are affected by it, and the community who wonders what really happened. This is something women live in fear of all around the world, and she treats it with the respect it deserves. She draws Nikki into that narrative, building on the simmering tension between Kulwinder (and tradition) and Nikki (not exactly traditional) and forcing them to see each other differently.
Jaswal has written a novel that takes on what it means to be a woman and a widow in a community steeped in tradition. She takes care to show that as much as there are people who dare not stray from tradition, there are those (no matter their age) who just need the slightest nudge to realise that they can break free of their tradition, and there are those who value what it has to offer — Nikki’s sister being one. The characters in this book all have their different views on it, and some change and some don’t.
Jaswal has taken on a mighty task here, showing the good and the bad of tradition, but she succeeds with flying colours for me because the women in her story are funny, relatable women who may throw off their traditions or embrace them, but whatever their choice, they realise it is their choice to make.