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Note:  Author Balli Kaur Jaswal was WINNER of the Best Young Australian Novelist, 2014, and FINALIST for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015.

“[Nikki] was surrounded by women with their heads covered…[and] each one had a story. She could see herself addressing a room full of these Punjabi women. Her senses became overwhelmed with the colour of their kameezes, the sound of fabric rustling and pencils tapping, the smell of perfume and turmeric. Her purpose came into sharp focus. ‘Some people don’t even know about this place,’ she would say. ‘Let’s change that.’ Fiery-eyed and indignant, they would pen their stories for the whole world to read.”

cover punjabi widowsNikki, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a Sikh immigrant to England, is feeling independent, having left university after deciding that the law courses she had been taking to please her father do not interest her. She has also found her own apartment and moved away from her mother and sister at the family flat. She does not wear the traditional clothing of the older generation, and she has no intention of accepting a traditional marriage, one negotiated by her family and agreed to by a groom’s family. Without credentials she can use for a professional career, she is now working nights at O’Reilly’s, a small bar, which would horrify her mother and her recently deceased father. Fearing that the bar might be getting ready to go out of business, she applies for a part-time teaching job with the Sikh Community Association, connected with the enormous Gurdwara Temple, which is the center of activity in the Southall section of London. When she gets the job, she quickly learns that most of the women who have signed up for her writing course are illiterate, both in English and in the language of the Punjab. They are also widows of varying ages, women who have lost their place in the social fabric of their culture following the deaths or disappearances of their husbands. Many speak little English, and Nikki’s knowledge of Punjabi is limited.

author photoAs the class begins, four widows revolt, having no interest in learning the alphabet and sentence structure when they want to write stories. Nikki agrees to let them tell their stories and fantasies to one member of the class who will act as secretary and record them for everyone to read. What follows is a unique book, difficult to fit into any genre, because it pushes the limits of so many traditional story forms. In answer to the unstated questions of readers of this review, yes, the widows do tell erotic stories, very erotic stories, which become their form of rebellion against all the strictures, prohibitions, and required behaviors which have so governed their lives and kept them under the control of their male dominated society. As they take turns telling stories, the classes become raucous, as years of self-control and obedience dissolve into fantasies as the Punjabi widows express their yearning for pleasures which have been denied to them. Soon their behavior and their excitement comes to the attention of the female director of the community association, who is already keeping an eye on Nikki for her failure to act subservient and obey her directives, and when the participants’ enthusiasm for the classes draws in new people and leads to some of the stories being circulated outside of class, big trouble occurs.

gurdwara southall

Gurdwara, Southall, the center of Sikh life.

Other plot lines push the boundaries of other genres. Nikki and her sister Mindi participate in a domestic drama in which Mindi expects Nikki to help her as Mindi tries to negotiate a traditional marriage. At the same time Nikki’s mother is trying to get Nikki to return home and become a well-behaved daughter once again. When Nikki meets a young Punjabi man who is also the son of immigrants and who shares her beliefs, the novel becomes a romance, complete with all the usual complications. The terrible memories of one participant, whose daughter Maya has died under suspicious circumstances, turn the novel into a mystery, and the back story of the daughter suggests that her death might have been an honor killing. Social and political issues emerge as ultra-conservative males, offended by these newly “independent” females, seek to ensure the preservation of the “old ways” and the subservience of the women of the culture through a group known as The Brothers.   Suspicious deaths occur. Some of the women become involved with a group called Fem Fighters and set themselves up for retaliation by threatened males who will stop at nothing.

One of the many saree shops in Southall, which Nikki enjoys for shopping.

One of the many saree shops in Southall.

The author rotates scenes from each of these different genres to create non-stop action. The erotic stories from the beginning continue, in italics, throughout the novel, as new scenes reveal Nikki’s family situation, her own love story, her sister’s more traditional love story, the developing mystery regarding the death of Maya, all the complications of the writing class and its existence, and the sensitivities of the males who feel threatened by the Punjabi’s women’s growing independence, leading to a grand finale. This very “full,” well-developed novel does much more than highlight erotic fantasies as it explores cultural traditions, issues of immigration, some immigrants’ wishes to retain their old traditions while living in a new country, and the difficulties of those who wish to participate in the life of the new country while still honoring the traditions of the old. Honor is a big part of this novel, and respect is a continuing goal.

As the novel opens, Nikki remembers when she wanted Beatrix Potter's Journals, something that sparked an argument with her parents. At the conclusion of the novel, this book, which she had seen in Delhi, is mentioned once again.

As the novel opens, Nikki remembers when she wanted Beatrix Potter’s Journals, something that sparked an argument with her parents. At the conclusion of the novel, this book, which she had seen in Delhi, is mentioned once again.

Author Balli Kaur Jaswal, born in Singapore, traveled the world with her family during her father’s tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and her knowledge of the lives of Punjabi Sikhs in a place like Southall is based on her own experience living there. Her broad background in many other cultures, including those of Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, Australia, the UK, and the US make her particularly sensitive to the ways that myriad cultures respond to different stimuli, and much of her novel reflects profound sensitivities to cultural differences. Few American readers will be offended or shocked by the eroticism of the stories here, but I find myself wondering why these repressed Punjabi widows have no qualms about sharing the most intimate aspects of their private lives, putting the details in writing, and having them circulate throughout the community, albeit primarily within the female community. These women are traditional, wear traditional clothing, and adhere to the traditional Punjabi and Sikh behaviors, and their delight in expressing their sexual fantasies with a potentially wide audience does not feel realistic to me. Perhaps the fact that many of them cannot read the details of the fantasies as they are recorded by the class secretary would be one explanation, but I found myself wondering why their fantasies, developed and shared, would create enough of a feeling of freedom to make so many other cultural inhibitions disappear.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.deccanchronicle.com

Gurdwara, Southall, the center of Sikh life in London, is a still photo from https://www.youtube.com/

Nikki goes shopping in Southall and enjoys the saree shops there:  https://www.yell.com/457855/

As the novel opens, Nikki remembers when she wanted Beatrix Potter’s Journals, something that sparked an argument with her parents. At the conclusion of the novel, this book, which she had seen in Delhi, regains attention.  Source:  Amazon.co.uk.

REVIEW. England, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Punjab, immigrants
Written by: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published by: William Morrow
Date Published: 06/13/2017
ISBN: 978-0062645128
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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