Review: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

The Southall, London, Sikh community gets a sexual awakening when an adult literacy course becomes an adult literature workshop in Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. Author Balli Kaur Jaswal hails from Singapore, and this delightful and provocative novel is her first published in the United States.

A modern Punjabi woman holding no stock in tradition, Nikki is aghast that her sister wants an arranged marriage. Likewise, Mindi is mystified by Nikki's stubborn sense of feminism, which has given her only singlehood and an unimpressive apartment above the divey pub where she tends bar. Jaswal gives both perspectives due diligence in an era when progressive ideals are viewed as untenable and conservative traditions as restrictive. Far from lacking agency, Mindi repeatedly approaches her life and decisions more proactively than her sister.

Before their father died, he'd had high hopes for his daughters to be a lawyer and a doctor. Neither panned out, and the effect of grief on family expectations reverberates throughout the novel. Nikki eventually agrees to post Mindi's profile on the marriage board at the large Sikh temple in Southall, where she discovers an opportunity to prove to her mom, sister and herself that she's not a complete failure: she takes a job teaching what she thinks is a creative writing class for women.

The course is the brainchild of Kulwinder Kaur, the temple's new community development director, but it quickly becomes apparent that Nikki and Kulwinder have conflicting notions of what these classes are for. The students, primarily widows, are illiterate. Faced with the arduous task of teaching ABCs, or chalking up yet another arrested development, Nikki perseveres. The surprises don't stop there, though. These widows are a sharp, lively bunch, with plenty to say. When they discover a collection of erotica in Nikki's bag, the group begins an eye-opening new oral tradition.

The storytelling sessions are as sexy as they are hilarious. Frequently reaching for euphemism when Punjabi words fail them, the widows offer priceless observations like, "Mine tried to put his banana between my breasts once. I don't recommend it. It was like seeing a canoe trying to edge its way through two hillsides." But religious communities are often known more for their rumor mills than their sexual openness, and the Sikhs in Southall are no exception. Some young women have even turned up dead for not conforming to traditions of honor, and Nikki and her students are in danger as the classes grow more and more popular.

Jaswal juggles humor, grief and suspense magnificently as she weighs modern ideas against tested traditions. While the expectations of first-generation immigrants don't always align with the experiences of their offspring, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows makes an excellent case for continued conversation. As one student puts it: "These storytelling sessions are good fun but I think I've also learned to speak up for what I want. Exactly what I want." This novel is a treat, sure to leave readers breathless--more than once. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

Shelf Talker: Punjabi widows turn a literacy course into an erotica workshop, and the result is both hilarious and tender.

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