I know what you’re thinking. That title. That title is, at once, the best and the worst thing about this book, depending on the way you look at it. You might want to buy a brown paper cover, old school style, if you are wary of prying eyes judging you and your reading choices. Or if, like me, you derive sadistic pleasure from watching prying eyes go wide in sheer judgmental shock, you might want to read it in some public places.
Either way, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is not smut. Well, not just smut anyway. You might find better satisfaction, pun unintended, from reading Mills & Boons, or 50 Shades, or whatever it is you horny toads are reading these days (not that there is anything wrong with it, as Seinfeld would say). ESFPW is, at once, a coming of age story, a murder mystery, a young adult novel, an old adult novel, a commentary on society, a novel about the people of London and a novel about the people of Punjab.
The story is based largely in Southall, the famous Mini-Punjab of London where thousands of Punjabis have made a home away from home with the comforts of their traditional food, language, clothes and values. There are people here who have lived in London for decades and survived without ever learning the English language. On the other hand, there is the younger generation, born and raised in London, who are more British than Indian in their hearts, values and life choices. The conflict between these two forms the bedrock of ESFPW.
Nikki is a 22 year old, London born, Punjabi girl, a feminist, a writer, an activist and a law school dropout who is still looking for her calling in life and feels judged by her family for being different from their notion of a good Punjabi girl. Kulwinder is a good Punjabi wife and mother who moved to London many decades ago with her husband and daughter. She has recently suffered a huge personal loss and is trying to overcome it by burying herself in community service at the Southall Gurudwara.
Looking to promote women’s activities in the community, Kulwinder starts English classes for women, and signs up mostly widows who have more time in their hands. Nikki, looking for a vocation, signs up as the teacher hoping to empower the women. Neither foresees the shape these classes would take, led by the widows who, it turns out, are interested in neither English nor empowerment. A silent revolution begins in the community when erotic stories, shared in this classroom, go surreptitiously viral through the grapevine.
Nikki, in the process of facilitating these stories, discovers the skeletons in Southall’s closet and finds herself in the middle of the unsolved suicude-slash-murder of a young Punjabi girl. The more she learns about the secrets of the community, the more horrors reveal themselves and it is up to Nikki and her students to do something about it.
One of my favourite things about this book is that the author, Balli Kaur Jaswal, challenges your pre-conceived notions through her characters. If you dismiss “these young-feminist-types”, Nikki will surprise you with her openness and respect for traditional values, even when she doesn’t agree with them. If you dismiss “these old-senile-aunty-types”, the widows will set the record straight with their vivaciousness and wit. The novel is funny, engaging, racy, thought provoking, unexpected, with not a dull moment, especially when there is a Punjabi widow on the page.
Highly highly recommended read, especially for fellow Punjabis. You will definitely find a reflection of your family, your relatives and that friendly neighbourhood Pammi Aunty in this book!