In “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows,” Balli Kaur Jaswal manages to combine several interesting story lines into one fascinating read that is in turn tender, touching, humorous, exciting, and exotic. The protagonist is Nikki, whose parents immigrated to Great Britain in search of a better life. She considers herself quite a modern woman, and contrary to her family’s very conservative Sikh principles, moved out and quit law school trying to figure out what she wants in life.
Even worse, Nikki’s job is bartending, and she lives in an apartment above the bar. Her father took her decision to drop out of law school very hard, and shortly thereafter, during a trip to India with Nikki’s mother, he died. Nikki has to deal with the fact that she never got to make things right with him before his death.
Nikki’s sister, Mindi, is looking for a husband, and she asks Nikki to post a “husband wanted” notice on the marriage boards at the Sikh Community Association temple in Southall, a primarily Indian community. That chance visit changes Nikki’s life. She sees a posting for a job teaching writing classes to women, and she applies. The only woman on the Sikh board of directors is Kulwinder Kaur, who often feels intimidated by the men on the board who have the power and choose to spend little of the budget for the needs of the women in the temple. Kulwinder hires Nikki. During one of Nikki’s smoking breaks outside the community center, she meets Jason, a Sikh with an “unSikh” name.
It turns out that the class is for widows, who in the Sikh culture wear white and whose lives are basically over once their husband dies. They are not allowed to remarry or even have much of a life. Some of these women are relatively young, and they almost all speak only Punjabi. Nikki’s Punjabi is definitely her second language. She is fluent conversationally, but not much more. She discovers that many of the widows cannot read, and part of her job will be teaching them to read.
When the women find a romance novel with a lurid cover that Nikki had in her bag, they decide that instead of boring English lessons, they want to tell their own erotic stories. They turn out to be remarkably adept at creating stories filled with romance and lots of vigorous sex. Whether the stories are autobiographical or fantasy is anyone’s guess, although some of the women are very frank about which is which. One of the women, shockingly, was married at the age of ten and is a very young widow.
A side story is the mystery of Kulwinder Kaul’s daughter, Maya, and what happened to her. Kulwinder is mysteriously followed and receives threatening messages. The women are worried about angering a group of mostly unemployed thugs who go around as the unofficial “morality police” and call themselves “the Brothers,” using violence and threats to keep women in line. The Brothers even serve as bounty hunters, bringing back wayward daughters. They don’t like Nikki’s smoking and her provocative (to them) modern manner of dress.
Nikki is afraid to tell her mother the truth of what the classes have turned out to be — the widows writing erotic stories, or rather telling the stories while the others transcribe them. Copies of the stories are made and distributed, and the class grows more popular. In the meantime, Nikki is getting involved with Jason, who has his own issues. He gets mysterious phone calls at all hours and must cancel dates at inopportune times.
Not only does Nikki eventually get involved in the mystery behind Maya’s untimely demise, she is also curious about three other Sikh women who were killed or died mysterious deaths. Through the community of the erotic story tellers, Nikki and the widows grow stronger and more determined to speak up for themselves.
With several mysteries going on and lots of information about the Punjabi (and Sikh) culture, it’s no wonder that the book is hard to put down. Jaswal’s ability to juggle the various plot lines and keep the story poignant, humorous, and informative is impressive. Nikki, the daughter of Indian immigrants, learns to appreciate her sister’s decision about finding a husband a more traditional way, and she learns the important lesson that true tolerance doesn’t just work one way.
This would be a fabulous choice for a book club.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.