Yes, this offbeat novel really does contain erotic stories

Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows book coverIf nothing else, Balli Kaur Jaswal deserves five stars for coming up with one of the most inventive titles of any book I’ve read: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows.

At the same time, the title makes the novel literally difficult to crack open. At home, I had to hide it from my kids’ prying eyes; in public, I felt the need to shield the front cover lest anyone think I was reading soft porn in broad daylight.

But I suppose I was reading soft porn in broad daylight?

Whether or not soft porn nestled in otherwise innocuous fiction is up your alley, the erotic stories cooked up by Jaswal are the best part of her book. Clever, racy and unusual, they enliven a clunky story that relies too heavily on clichés and sometimes has the ambiance of a Lifetime movie.

Twenty-something Nikki is a daughter of Indian immigrants in London. Unlike the members of her conservative Sikh community, Nikki is “modern”: she dates, wears jeans, and smokes cigarettes. As if these choices aren’t enough to appall her parents, she has dropped out of law school and is slogging away in a pub. (Cue the predictable pack of sexist/racist/inane guys who work and drink there.)

After her father dies, leaving Nikki bereft over their unresolved quarrels, she stumbles into a job at the Punjabi community center in Southall, where she is charged with teaching Sikh widows—“weary and shuffling their feet”—how to read and write English. (Cue the predictable pack of little old ladies who have a lot to say but don’t know how to speak up for themselves.)

But this is where any sense of predictability comes to a screeching halt. What begins as a basic literacy class morphs into something thrilling. The women shed their modesty and decide they would rather explore their memories and fantasies through storytelling (ahem). You can almost hear their gleeful shrieks and sultry whispers rise from the page as they share spellbinding accounts of hot showers, rooftop trysts, and throbbing eggplants.

With Nikki’s encouragement, the widows learn to find their voices, which are bold and vibrant. And, of course, Nikki comes to a deeper understanding about what she wants from life and how to make amends with her family, all while solving a murder that has plagued Southall for months (because why not add a sense of mystery to an already odd book?).

Although the plot feels mostly trite, Jaswal’s strength is her ability to examine the fine line that exists between belonging to a group and feeling like an outsider. Her characters are quick to separate themselves into categories based on gender, religion, age and ethnicity, but they are always hopping between these categories, shifting from judging others to being judged themselves. This back-and-forth happens repeatedly and even tragically, leading Jaswal to call for more empathy and compassion. Her plea couldn’t be more timely: “Even as this life confounded and remained foreign… every day… would have been an exercise in forgiveness.”

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Laura Bird