Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, a Mystery by Balli Kaur Jaswal
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
It seems funny to say that there’s a lot going on in this book, since it isn’t particularly fast-paced. When pressed, I would call it a Mystery, but that’s an oversimplification. It also works as Women’s Fiction and Indian Fiction, and possibly even Literary Fiction. There’s even a romance, although it’s more of a subplot than a contribution to the multiple genres. The mystery itself takes a backseat most of the time, as the characters’ relationships and emotions are prioritised. I loved it all, from every side. This was the first of the books I managed to read in Recovery, and I’m sure it’s part of the reason I recovered so quickly.
Nikki is a modern sort of woman who struggles with her Sikh heritage. She carries a lot of guilt over her perceived failure to live up to the life her parents wanted her to have, which was made worse by the death of her father. Her life decisions show her desire to break away from tradition and embrace a more western philosophy of living–she left the family home to live in a flat above the pub she works in, lost her virginity long ago, and finds the idea of arranged marriage to be antiquated and undesirable.
When her sister asks Nikki to post a notice on the marriage board in the temple at Southall, Nikki soothes her own opposing views (“It’s against my principles,” she says) by finding the most obscure, covered part of the board. This is a great character establishing moment for Nikki. She isn’t so much lacking in conviction or particularly infused with it. More like opinionated and pigheaded about it, but not confident or secure enough in herself to make a clear stand. She talks a big game, and yet can be cowed by women she considers to be authority figures.
After accomplishing her unwanted task, Nikki comes across a flyer that appears to be requesting a creative writing teacher for a women only class. It appeals to her sense of feminism and drive to be a good person who does good works, and also promises supplementing income. She jumps right on it.
There are many other women whose story this is, particularly Kulwinder Kaur, and they are all strongly informed by past tragedy. Most have managed to overcome it with a mix of humour and pragmatism. They join the class with the understanding that they’ll be learning basic literacy, and in an effort to escape the dull preschool-like curriculum that Nikki comes up with, the ladies start telling stories about sexual escapades. At first one of them transcribes while the others talk, but over time Nikki provides more streamlined and higher tech aides, such as a tape recorder.
It’s hard to talk about the mystery without getting into spoiler territory. It was one of the things I wasn’t completely aware would be a Thing before reading, although it somehow became one of the things I looked forward to the most. There’s a kind of rhythm to how everything comes up, which meant (for me) that some of the pacing could get a bit too slow while reading through a different subplot and wishing for more information about whatever I was more invested in at the time. While this could be almost frustrating, it did not result in any dropped plot threads.
There’s also a mystery element in getting to know all of the women. More and more come to the class, drawn by the rebellious fun of sharing dirty stories. Sometimes they tell more about the storyteller than a long conversation might ever have done. Everything from the prose to the pacing shines brightest when the narrative is focused on the characters.
The multiple crossing genres in this book make it an engaging read no matter what you’re looking for coming into it. The emotions are genuine and beautifully expressed. The characters are impactful. This is a book that stays with you.