Last week, I read Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Windows, and I think it is the most fun book I have read in recent times.
In Southall, a brown suburb of London, young Nikki is hired to teach an adult literacy class marketed as a creative writing course to a group of Punjabi widows at the local Gurudwara. These women show up at the temple everyday to pass their time in a space with familiar sounds and smells. The classes soon evolve into a workshop of sorts where they exchange sexually charged stories. Taking off from here, the author explores a variety of themes in a warm and lighthearted way: how we are quick to assume older women have no desire or sexuality, the repressed lives they lead in an insular Punjabi community, the heavy-lifting they must do to uphold their culture and honour in this village that has been reconstructed to resemble the homes they left, the insistence of the diaspora that they haven’t forgotten their roots, the friction between older and newer generations.
The widows aren’t what they appear, and Nikki realizes there is much they can teach her, even if their spheres of knowledge do not coincide with her own. Their imaginations and their lived experiences offer her a chance to look into a world far removed from the London she knows. They are all scared of The Brothers, a group of unemployed men who patrol the streets of Southall, being bullies and enforcing what they think to be the honourable behaviour of a good woman. They are the kind of men we find often, the ones who think an erosion of culture happens every time a woman thinks for herself.
As someone who dropped out of law college, moved out of her parents’ home and started working as a bartender, Nikki is the child that immigrant parents are embarrassed of. She has relationships with men she doesn’t intend to marry, speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to make mistakes. And she is constantly judged for this ‘modern’ attitude, for disregarding her duty towards her parents, for wearing British clothes and not knowing enough Punjabi, for wanting to be in charge of her own life. Her sister Mindi is the good child, the one who is more considerate of her parents, who has a safe job as a nurse and who wants to marry a man within religious and caste boundaries.
The author presents to us all the different perspectives that make up this expatriate community, but never with malice. This is a novel that is kind and generous, even to its antagonists. The novel is interspersed with excerpts from the erotic stories that the women write: describing for us organs that resemble phallic vegetables, greasing procedures performed with coconut oil and ghee, a lesbian affair between two sisters-in-law, the memory of an extra-marital affair disguised as wishful thinking. Even when the stories almost become monotonous, we are reassured by the fun the women seem to be having. They delight in discovering female friendship, the thrill to be had in your voice is being heard, and an absence of the shame they have carried with them for so long.
This review appeared in the Same.