By Kaamna Jain
The second most interesting thing about former High Court judge Mahesh Sharma’s peacock theory is that somehow being celibate makes the peacock a superior animal. The first thing of course is that it’s a completely unscientific fact which has been quoted while giving judgment in a criminal case. The judge needs to be reminded that he as well as the entire human race is a product of sexual reproduction. Then why celebrate and put organisms that reproduce asexually on a higher pedestal?
For years students of science have been taught that sexual reproduction is better than asexual reproduction for evolution because it creates genetic variety. This helps a species in adapting to constantly changing and challenging environment, even though sexual reproduction is more cumbersome and less efficient. That is the reason sexually reproducing species are at the highest rung of the ladder while single cell organisms which reproduce asexually are at the very bottom of the pyramid.
It is the taboo surrounding sex that sets the context for the book, “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows”, written by Singapore based author, Balli Kaur Jaswal. Published in early 2017 by Harper Collins, movie rights have already been sold to Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions, and Film4.
The title is an intriguing misnomer. Erotic stories? Sure, any time. But for Punjabi widows? In a patriarchal society, widows are deemed to be even lesser beings than women and somehow supposed to be asexual beings, bereft of desires and fancies once their better halves leave for their heavenly abode. The word “widow” conjures the image of a lady clad in white, engaged either in religious or household chores. That such a creature could have erotic stories to share or sexual fantasies, takes time to get used to. Once you get used to the idea, the surreptitious thrill of enjoying something forbidden also screams out loud from the title. I quickly ordered a copy online. Now I happened to be travelling and thanks to the title, was extremely uncomfortable about getting it delivered to a neighbour’s house for safekeeping. After that, I could not bring myself to say the name of the book when asked by an elderly uncle what I was reading currently.
The story is set in Southall and Enfield, London. The protagonist is a young British girl of Indian origin, Nikki, who is trying to figure out what she wants to do in life. Brought up in Enfield, which is a more British part of London, she gets tricked into an assignment to take writing class for Punjabi windows in a Gurudwara in Southall. She wants to “help the women” and believes that “everyone has stories to tell. It would be a rewarding experience to help Punjabi women to craft their stories”.
She gets the shock of her life when she realizes that the women who have registered for her classes are illiterate. Let alone write stories, most of them cannot even read the alphabet. This is just the beginning of her struggles in getting some productive result out of these classes. She does the next best thing – she asks them to create stories in the language they know, to be recorded, transcribed and written in English by the lone student who knows English. This leads to a bigger shock for Nikki. The stories of the widows are colourful, vibrant, sensuous, provocative, peppered with references to objects from their familiar surroundings – the kitchen. Once you read the book, you will not be able to look at ghee, lauki, baingan without your imagination going into over drive.
The other important character is Kulwinder Kaur, a middle aged lady in charge of development initiatives for women in the Community Association. Desperate to get the budget approved for development initiatives for women, after her failure at getting the budget approval the previous year, she has no qualms about tricking Nikki into taking the classes. She is strict, orthodox and clings to Indian culture, while nursing ghosts of a damning tragedy.
Both the lead characters are fighters for the causes that they believe in. Nikki helps the widows find their voice and identity, in the process getting clarity on what she really wants to do and also unravelling a dark murder mystery.
The theme of the novel resonates. Surprisingly, women’s issues remain the same, whether it is Ludhiana or London. Like India, Southall also has self-proclaimed keepers of religion – vigilantes who think themselves above the common folk and sometimes even above the law and culture vultures who can terrorise people to follow their bidding. Topical and extremely relevant.
The book is not just about erotic stories, though there is a good measure of them. A hot blooded woman or man is sure to enjoy these stories. Desire, consummation, illicit relations, lesbianism, fetish, the stories are as varied as the tragedies in the lives of the widows. The beauty is that the author has done this while holding a mirror to societal norms, questioning the “done” things, interweaving it with a murder mystery and the theme of women’s emancipation.
Easy read with a strong message. Highly recommended!
Kaamna Jain is a journalist by education, a marketing professional by trade and a blogger by choice. She cherishes her dance and yoga lessons, digs mythological fiction and listens to music that speaks. She’s fascinated by the small things in life but can’t resist the allure of the new and the undiscovered.