Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal

punjabiwidowsPersonally I don’t see how anyone could avoid picking up a book titled Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, but that might just be me. Oh, and in case you were wondering, while this book is not exactly what the title suggests, there are examples in here of the titular erotic stories, and they are a little explicit, though in a very gentle way, so you might want to be aware of that.

Really, though, this is a fun contemporary novel set in London’s Sikh community. The main character is Nikki, a girl in her early 20s who has an uneasy relationship with her Sikh family and community. She’s not estranged from her family exactly, but her mother and sister are both more traditional that she is (sister Mindi is seeking an arranged marriage, which horrifies Nikki), and Nikki still feels guilty about the fact that her father died of a heart attack soon after she announced she was dropping out of law school: she’s afraid that disappointment over her career choice might have killed him. Nikki still sees her mom and sister, but she doesn’t live with them; she lives in an apartment over the bar where she works while she’s trying to figure out what to do next with her life.

What comes next is unexpected: Nikki ends up teaching a class for Punjabi women at a Sikh temple. She thinks it’s going to be a creative writing course; the women come expecting a basic literacy class. What emerges is something quite different from both, as the women begin sharing stories of forbidden fantasies and Nikki discovers that beneath the sedate and proper exterior of the widow lies a turbulent blend of desire, memory and fantasy.

I’ve called this a “fun” novel and the tone is quite light and often funny, and includes a sweet romance subplot. However, it does deal with some quite heavy and serious issues, particularly around the experience of a young woman named Maya whose tragic death is still a very fresh and recent wound for many people in the community. Maya’s story, which Nikki becomes intrigued with, lays bare many of the pressures faced by women in traditional communities — forced marriage, the pressure to conform, the obsession with a woman’s and a family’s honour. While the overall tone of the book is usually light-hearted, there’s a darkness around the edges that is dealt with seriously.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it if you don’t mind a few vividly-described scenes of sexual fantasy, allegedly written by devout Sikh widows.

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