Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal.
William Morrow, HarperCollins, New York, 2017.
Realistic fiction, 298 pages + 14 pages of extras.
Nikki is a modern British girl, but financial troubles lead her back to the gurdwara, where she takes on a job teaching English classes to widows at the community center. Kulwinder is working hard to be accepted as an equal by the male leaders so she can advocate for other women, especially the widows who have little voice in the community. Both run afoul of the conservative group the Brothers, who feel it’s their duty to keep rebellious women in line.
Before we get to the book itself, the reaction people had to this cover was intriguing. Everyone seemed to assume it was very raunchy. Even at the cash register, this book merited a double take and pursed lips as I purchased it together with our normal family groceries (although no kids were with me). People had so many surprised or negative reactions that eventually I hid it in our room rather than face more awkward conversations.
Despite the title, this is not proper erotica. It’s highly literary, dark, yet comedic, with elements of the mystery and thriller genre along with a touch of romance and some steamy scenes. Or rather, it’s a book that’s likely to get typecast but difficult to classify.
I appreciated the discussions of colorism, and inclusion of informed consent as a topic. Reading a novel set in a Sikh community was interesting. This London community was very different to the group of students I have in the American Midwest, but it definitely did show me a different aspect of Sikh life.
Most of the reviews and previews I’ve seen have talked exclusively about Nikki, who is the main driving force of the novel, but Kulwinder is also a viewpoint character. Her inclusion gives the book a lot of its balance. At points I really felt that there should also have been a viewpoint from one of the widows, but the erotic stories were told from their perspectives.
Since Nikki was the focus of this novel, it really felt like a book written for Western people rather than for Sikhs. Especially considering that the only other Sikh novel I’ve read was also told from an outsider’s point of view.
Another aspect I felt iffy about was the violence. Again, this story is British while I have an American perspective, so this could be my national bias showing. Here people often confuse Muslims and Sikhs, and Sikhs have been frequently targeted with hate crimes and blamed for criminal violence which they have no relation to. Therefore I just could not see anything like this being written or set in the United States, because the Sikh extremist plotline would be very distressing.
I also felt like the differences between conservative and liberal Sikhs were so much more extreme than the Sikh families we know. I’m not sure if this is truly a regional difference, literary dramatization, or if we just happen to know middle-ground families.
The love story felt a bit over the top, but it was interesting reading about Nikki’s very Western take on marriage versus her sister Mindi’s desire for a traditional arranged marriage. There are many adult scenes, so as you might assume, I would not generally recommend this for teens or high school libraries! There is a scene between two women as well which leads to some homophobic remarks (countered in the text) and an interesting discussion amongst the women.
Overall, this was not a favorite, but I did enjoy it. The most interesting part for me was how Jaswal successfully mixed such a wide variety of genres. However I think that will also prevent this book from finding its audience. Erotica readers will likely be bored by the literary fiction aspects, while modern fiction readers may be turned off by the title. It was nice to see a Sikh book at Target though.
Oh, and here is another review, by a Pakistani American author who finds far less fault with it than I did.