Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal [Spoilers!]

Wow. It’s been a minute since I’ve posted about what I’m reading these days, but from the very first chapter of this book, I knew it was one I’d need to share. I’ll warn you now, though — there might be a few spoilers woven through here, so read on at your own risk. If you’d prefer to stop here and read the book instead, by all means, GO FORTH!

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows features a kick-ass cast of strong female characters. While I’d obviously gleaned from the title that the novel would have something to do with Punjabi widows and sexy stories, it was still a bit of a pleasant jolt to actually read it. It got me thinking: why wouldn’t traditional Punjabi widows be interested in erotic stories? Because they’re old? Bah. Because they’re religious? Weak argument. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that tired stereotypes were the only reason the premise had struck me as so funny. This was a humbling realization to have straight out the gate, and it made me even more curious as to what other thought-provoking issues this book would cook up.

To briefly summarize: Nikki, a Londoner of Punjabi heritage whose feminist views tend to clash with the more traditional beliefs of the Punjabi community, is hired to teach what she thinks is a creative writing class for the women at the temple. Although she has high feminist hopes for creating an anthology of Punjabi female voices, what Nikki doesn’t count on is that most of the women attending have quite a different plan for the direction their writing will take. As the class turns into a writing group for erotic stories, Nikki begins to see the widows in a whole new light. Add to this an unsolved murder and a little bit of romance, and we’ve got ourselves a pretty juicy story.

I’ll say it straight out: once it got going, this novel was predictable. We could tell way ahead that Nikki would begin to count herself as a part of the Punjabi community, and we knew all along that Maya’s murder wasn’t actually a suicide. However, this predictability didn’t make the book any less enjoyable. In fact, I was glad that Jaswal didn’t sacrifice her rich characters for the sake of creating more drama and twists. In fact, the murder part of the storyline seemed a little too easily solved and I could have done with a different method for revealing Kulwinder’s character. All the same, the beauty of this book lies in the emotional connection we feel with the women, in how invested we feel in the unfolding of their personal stories. From Sheena’s fling with Rahul to Mindi’s choice to seek an arranged marriage, we find ourselves rooting for each of the women. Sure, we may know that Nikki’s resistance to Punjabi tradition will soften, but it’s all the more meaningful when it does happen, precisely because we (like her mother) have been waiting for it.

I have to admit that I’m not very familiar with Punjabi or Sikh culture; my familiarity with India is microscopic and comes only from what I’ve learned in yoga, which is usually pretty white-washed anyway. But, from what I can tell, the themes explored in this book are the same ones women from all traditions have had to deal with at some point in history or another. I couldn’t help but thinking of my own religion (Judaism) while I read this, and how the story might compare if it had instead been written about Orthodox Jewish widows writing erotic stories. Since that’s a pretty hard thing for me to picture, it helped me imagine the incredulousness that Nikki must have felt at first. This comparison also extended to Mindi’s desire for an arranged marriage, as many Orthodox Jews follow the custom of matchmaking. While it’s not something I would do, it’s important to remember that meaningful relationships can sprout in all kinds of environments. By the end of the novel, Nikki has also come to this realization.

For me, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows was not so much about the storyline, as it was about the attachment we felt to the characters and the difficult-to-dissect themes it addressed. Women’s issues and religion/tradition can be a tricky knot to untangle, but Jaswal managed it beautifully here, putting empathy and friendship at the forefront. This is the first book I’ve read of the author’s, so I was excited to learn that she’s got four others — I’m gonna have to get reading!

(If you’ve read this book, feel free to let me know what you thought about it in the comments below. I love a good book discussion!)

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