Today my book club met to discuss our second book of the 2018-2019 school year, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. The discussion was short but rich. There was an overall consensus that Jaswal did an excellent job depicting the complexity of the Indian community in Southall. Nikki the main character of the story is a young modern Indian origin woman looking for her correct path in life. She refuses her father’s expectations of her being lawyer halfway through the degree and winds up “teaching” English to Punjabi widows in the community hall in Southall.
In spite of the seemingly well-plotted out novel, Jaswal doesn’t deliver on making the characters meaningful. We can’t get close enough to them to like them. The story is guided mostly by Nikki and Kulwinder but neither of them are developed enough for the reader to care about them. I stopped wondering when the characters were going to become more interesting (because clearly it wasn’t going to happen) and I decided to focus mostly on the hard hitting themes and plot.
“We built Southall because we didn’t know how to be British… If you had any problems in this new country, your neighbors would rush to your side and bring you money, food, whatever you need. That’s the beauty of being surrounded by your community.” The younger women in the story view community as a prison. It can be supportive but it’s critical if you don’t comply to doing what is expected of you. It can even lead to death. However there are many different versions of this community which we compared to ourselves living here in France. As Anglophones, we adapt to French society as much as we can, while taking comfort in meeting amongst ourselves regularly. It’s our way of giving support and sharing our common culture, but we don’t pressure each other to behave or live in particular ways. The Southall community women, on the other hand, are repressed and made to believe that their lives are not successful without marriage and children. The repression isn’t just implemented by the men but also by the older women on the younger ones for the men; and that makes it all the more disturbing.
As a whole this book makes for a very good book club discussion, although it wasn’t all I expected. Lacking in character development, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows comes off as a movie script, with wooden dialogue. As I was reading, I could actually imagine how it would look on screen. There is a lot of telling and not much showing. It’s not literary fiction because it doesn’t give you more to mentally chew on other than what is literally written on the pages. I don’t think this book will stick with me very long. Even though, I’d recommend this book to people who like community/immigrant stories and stories about Indian communities living in England. But, if you’re looking for a book that’s going to make you think deeply this isn’t the one.
Balli Kaur Jaswal was born is Singapour. Inheritance, her first novel, was published in 2013. She won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award. She has also written Sugarbread (2016) and her new release of 2019 The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, a novel about Punjabi sisters off on a pilgrimage to their homeland to lay their mother to rest.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, (Harper Collins) paperback 295 pages