My kind neighbour who is responsible for my reading many new books this summer said ‘You’ll like this!’. First of all, the title caught my attention: I was instantly glad that someone thought about widows and desire in the same sentence. Second of all, as soon as I got home, I hastily covered the book in newspaper, the way we used to cover our school books in newspaper after covering them with brown paper, lest the brown paper cover gets spoiled :> Anyone? Although the reason was different now – I didn’t want my 9 year old asking me ‘Mummy, what does erotic mean?’ I am not ready for that conversation.
Before I delve into my review of the book, it is important I say this : I have grown up in India and find that the society is largely sexually repressed, desire is mostly a bad, dirty thing saved for vamps and villains. This is just for the normal sect of people. Widows are not even allowed to think of desires perhaps. I may sound harsh, and for sure things have progressed over my time, but without doing any valid research, I am confident that there remains much progress to be made. And I saluted the author Balli Kaur Jaswal for picking this topic.
Enter protagonist Nikki, our twenty something attractive Punjabi girl who lives in London. She’s the quintessential desi/Indian, conflicted with two cultures, the one shes born into and the one of the country she’s grown up in. She is the essential rebel as per Indian/Sikh conventions -sleeping with men, smoking cigarettes and dropping out of school. She somehow finds herself agreeing to teach a bunch of Punjabi widows to do creative writing, finding to her surprise, that most of them do not know how to write in the first place. The class somehow, derails from a writing class to one where erotic stories are brought in by the widows, using their imagination, their past to bring in what could be fulfilled or unfulfilled desires. There is a backdrop of religious policing, with Nikki and the widows having to be secretive for fear of being found out. The erotic stories themselves are part of the book, and this is a matter of personal taste, but they bring in some fair variety and imagination.
There are sub plots such as Nikki’s love life, and mysterious murders, Indian match making for Nikki’s sister, Nikki’s own struggles with reconciling her family, and the tales of families of the Sikh community that Nikki is now involved with deeply. The book has pace, generates empathy for situations without being overly sentimental, and is kept interesting due to the multiple sub plots that form the backdrop. Human character flaws take center-stage, making them rather believable. After the various twists and turns, readers are treated to some happy endings. The underdog protagonist is a hero (ine), the erotic stories written by the widows become a huge hit, murder mysteries are solved and at least a handful of women feel confident and empowered after being openly able to express themselves. Read this one, if you are a real feminist. Rooting for Balli Kaur for this interesting book, this can potentially be a great short web series.