Monday, July 16

“Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” Explores Female Sexuality Without Men

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

At Hindu weddings, a line of married women take their turns whispering words of wisdom in the bride’s ear. I’ve watched this tradition take place countless times, and recently I was visiting my parents when my mom divulged the secret at a dinner table conversation. Apparently, the women all say the same thing – akhand saubhagyavati – which is Sanskrit for “I hope you never die a widow,” or, “May you remain safe from the curse of widowhood.” My mother also revealed that she likes to use this moment as an opportunity to dole out sex advice.

When I learned this, I’d just finished reading Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal, a sweet, juicy, and intriguing candy of a novel. The protagonist, Nikki, is a listless law school dropout in her early-twenties who is “searching for her calling — a job where she could make a difference, stimulate her mind, be challenged valued and rewarded.” At the peak of her desperation, Nikki lands a gig teaching “creative writing” to widows at the Gurudwara community center in Southall — the London suburb nicknamed “Little India” for its large South Asian population. After the first meeting, Nikki realizes that the class isn’t quite what she expected — most of her students can barely speak or write in English, much less pen entire stories. When she does begin to teach them the basics of English, she learns that they are not so much interested in an education as they are in finding a way to fill their time.

The story takes off when one of the women in Nikki’s class finds a book of erotic stories she meant to gift to her sister, and the women begin sharing their own erotic fantasies while one of the younger widows who learned English in school transcribes them. The class transforms into an opportunity for the widows, who find liberation from their societal roles as castaways, as well as for Nikki who begins to develop a more complicated understanding of how sex and desire exist in her diasporic Punjabi community. As more women in the come to learn about and join, word spreads to the Brothers, a self-appointed group of men who take on the responsibility of acting as the community’s moral police. Here, the stakes become much higher as Nikki and her class become implicated in a larger story about how the community handles questions of women’s modesty and propriety.

In both the idea of akhand saubhagyavati and the preoccupation with women’s respectability in Erotic Stories for Punjabi Women, there is a pervasive notion that our lives as South Asian women are defined by the men who inhabit them: our fathers, our brothers, our husbands, and even those men with whom we do not bear immediate relation but assume an investment in upholding our chastity. Jaswal challenges this conception, not by eliminating men altogether, but by bringing female sexuality to the forefront and by forcing us to sit with our discomfort with the things we think are taboo: intercultural love, same-sex desire, marital rape, familial responsibility, feminism and so much more. She also reminds us, not at all subtly, that the consequences of our cultural obsession with feminine docility and purity is violent and destructive. At the same time, this novel is a celebration of intergenerational relationships between South Asian women.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Women is at once titillating, intriguing, and sweet — all throughout peppered with familiar tropes about what it is like to be South Asian woman in the diaspora. In the novel, nothing, including household vegetables and provisions, is spared from the possibility of innuendo. Throughout the novel, Jaswal hits all of the key notes about the South Asian diasporic experience while also keeping specific to how this plays out in the the UK’s Sikh diaspora. Specifically, she underscores the sense of displacement and alienation that saturates the immigrant experience, the generational tension between tradition and modernity, showing us that the story is not as simple as our parents holding on to antiquated ideas while we younger ones do everything we can to rebel against them. To the contrary, Jaswal develops not just one, but a host of dynamic and multi-dimensional female characters who demand that we dismantle any impulse we have to paint them as monolithic.

Share.

Leave A Reply