The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters: You may fight constantly, but sisters are forever

What is this about?: Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina take a pilgrimage to India at their mother’s request. Their mother has passed away and laid out an itinierary for them to spread her ashes in her homeland – and a few other things she wants them to do to strengthen their bonds and remind them of where they came from – yeah. Doesn’t quite work out that way.

What else is this about?: Family, the tensiosn that run between them and the tensions in these sisters’ lives that they haven’t shared. The book dives into some cultural expectations of women, even from before they’re born.

Blurb

The author of the Reese Witherspoon Book Club selection Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows follows her acclaimed America debut with this life-affirming, witty family drama—an Indian This Is Where I Leave You—about three Punjabi sisters embarking on a pilgrimage to their homeland to lay their mother to rest.

The British-born Punjabi Shergill sisters—Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina—were never close and barely got along growing up, and now as adults, have grown even further apart. Rajni, a school principal is a stickler for order. Jezmeen, a thirty-year-old struggling actress, fears her big break may never come. Shirina, the peacemaking “good” sister married into wealth and enjoys a picture-perfect life.

On her deathbed, their mother voices one last wish: that her daughters will make a pilgrimage together to the Golden Temple in Amritsar to carry out her final rites. After a trip to India with her mother long ago, Rajni vowed never to return. But she’s always been a dutiful daughter, and cannot, even now, refuse her mother’s request. Jezmeen has just been publicly fired from her television job, so the trip to India is a welcome break to help her pick up the pieces of her broken career. Shirina’s in-laws are pushing her to make a pivotal decision about her married life; time away will help her decide whether to meekly obey, or to bravely stand up for herself for the first time.

Arriving in India, these sisters will make unexpected discoveries about themselves, their mother, and their lives—and learn the real story behind the trip Rajni took with their Mother long ago—a momentous journey that resulted in Mum never being able to return to India again.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters is a female take on the Indian travel narrative. “I was curious about how different the trip would be if it were undertaken by women, who are vulnerable to different dangers in a male-dominated society,” Balli Kaur Jaswal writes. “I also wanted to explore the tensions between tradition and modernity in immigrant communities, and particularly how those tensions play out among women like these sisters, who are the first generation to be raised outside of India.”

Powerful, emotionally evocative, and wonderfully atmospheric, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters is a charming and thoughtful story that illuminates the bonds of family, sisterhood, and heritage that tether us despite our differences. Funny and heartbreaking, it is a reminder of the truly important things we must treasure in our lives.

It’s hard to explain the delight I take in a book like The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters.

Yes, they are Punjabi and living in London and Melbourne, and they are at different stages of their lives, but I know these sisters – I see myself and my sisters in certain situations in the book, and it made me smile and feel like I knew these women even more. Representation right?

Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina

These women may be going to adventures in India of a sort, but they are leaving issues behind in their own families: Rajni’s only child, Anil, has got a 36yo woman pregnant – he’s 18 and bears the weight of all his mother’s expectations. Rajni tried to have more children but couldn’t so her expectations for him – to have the kind of life she’s always wanted for him from the opportunities she worked hard to give to him – are big. When he goes entirely his own way, it devastates her and she takes that grief and anger with her to India.

Jezmeen has gone viral – and not in a good way. Since her mother’s death, she acknowledges her drinking might be a wee bit out of control, but not to the point that it’s a problem – except that not-a-problem got her killing a very expensive fish, in a very expensive restaurant to the tune of 35,000 pounds.

And fired from her job as a host of a disaster show (where guys get hit in sensitive places), which was her most successful job to date. In other words, her acting career never got started, and now her hosting career is over, and she fears she will forever be relegated to Terrorist Number 7’s wife.

Shirina, the youngest, was always the closest to Jezmeen, but something changed for her growing up. Perhaps the constant refrain that she was supposed to be a son wore her down to the point that she got on a marriage board, and did what every good Punjabi girl should do – and arranged her own marriage to a man in Melbourne.

By all accounts, a perfect match except for the part where his mother rules the house with an iron fist, wrapped around velvety tones — and she will not have her first grandchild be anything but a son. No prizes for guessing what a good Punjabi girl who wants to keep the peace with her mother-in-law will do.

Their mother looms large in their story as well. The book delves into those last days they spent with her, and the letter she wrote them laying out what she wanted them to do. There are secrets and tensions between the sisters from there too, but those are best left to find out when you read the book – it’s heartbreaking and awful, and you’ll understand the choices made nonetheless. There’s no denying the sadness from their mother’s death and the decisions they had to make, but at the same time I felt that Jaswal balances the sadness and the humour so well.

However, their mother looms large in other memories for Rajni who remembers most what their mother went through when their father died, and his family wouldn’t give them the money they needed from an inheritance – and she’s never let go of her guilt in her part in making the situation more difficult for her mother. Her sisters don’t remember as much – but they do remember their mother did everything she could to keep them clothed and fed, even though she was grieving her husband in a country where they had no family support.

India

India is as tumultuous as you would expect – the place and the sisters. Jaswal evokes the places the sister go to efficiently, without ever sacrificing detail – probably bc she uses the sisters to do so. Their experience of the country is different to each other, and I appreciated that.

On the trip, the sisters bicker and are nasty to one another, like all sisters are. They are very much wrapped up in their own lives and issues until they begin to see each other, and the secrets they’ve been keeping. It is Jezmeen who makes the first step, surprisingly – or not, possibly because she finally loses all hope of having a career in London. But it is in Rajni’s and Jezmeen’s efforts to protect Shirina that things come to a head.

Shirina is the most interesting character to me – her situation at her home in Melbourne is awful, but is the kind of awful you can’t see in marks on her body. It’s more the kind of emotional abuse, that hides itself away under the excuses she makes for her in-laws – and her husband.

The experience of India of the sisters’ there is one of those things that will make you smile and relate to them because it is that relationship and their characterisation that makes this book such a gem. Jaswal has created a book that might speak to me as an Indian woman and an older sister, but I think their relationship will speak to anyone – especially if you have the sisters you love, and adore and what to shake silly.

To tell any more would be to spoil to experience of finding these sisters yourself. Read it.

11 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.