I have to confess that I fell in love with this book after one glance at its cover when my friend Christine posted it on social media. And after reading it, the story completely lives up to its cover.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (William Morrow, 2017) is a fun yet sobering novel by Balli Kaur Jaswal. At first I thought the story would be set in Singapore, where the author was born and lives now, and was all excited about that. But it’s actually set in London, which becomes very important to the story.
Nikki is a young British woman whose parents immigrated to the UK from India. Nikki has assimilated and works as a bartender in a pub in a trendy part of London. She’s all but neglected her Sikh roots.
After her father dies and money becomes tight, she drops out of law school and gets a second job teaching writing to widows at a Punjabi community center in a part of London she tends to stay away from. As a joke, Nikki buys a book of erotic stories and accidentally brings it to class one evening. Most of the Punjabi widows in her class cannot read, write, or speak English, but it just took one to pick up the book and start reading and translating it to the rest of the class.
And that’s what all but one of the students want to write about in class. Nikki is hesitant at first, but then acquiesces because her class continues to grow in popularity and she can see how much this writing means to the widows. At the same times, a militant group of men in the community has been harassing women like Nikki who don’t adhere to Punjabi traditions. Because of this, the focus of the class must be kept under wraps. Moreover, there’s a mysterious unsolved death that continues to haunt the community years after it happened.
The book is fast-paced and funny at times, while serious and nail-biting at others. The characters seem very realistic and I find the Nikki character to be especially important, as she bridges the traditional and contemporary, and shows how difficult it can be for immigrants and their children to adapt to new countries. The cultural gap between Nikki and her family is also revealing, as Nikki’s sister opts for a traditional, arranged marriage while Nikki rejects that and wants to find her own partner. That becomes a thrilling side story on its own.
Erotic Stories is one of the best books I’ve read this summer. I’ve already lent it out to a friend and told dozens others about it. It just came out in the US last month.