When All is Said and Done…

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows proves Ariana’s point: God is a woman.

Too often, society boxes female authors and their stories about sex into sweeping tales of love, romance, and magic. Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel confirms that women — even conservative women — are humans too and that they have fantasies just like men. Sex doesn’t have to be folded into a fairy tale, and it doesn’t have to be forbidden (unless, of course, that’s part of the fantasy per some of our characters here). Women want and need to talk about it too.

This novel breaks cultural boundaries by questioning gender and cultural stereotypes and bringing taboos to the forefront. It challenges the concept of “other,” which confirms we’re more alike than different, and it’s really fun to read. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

“Perhaps passion and excitement were meant to be secondary to a stable adult life.” — Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows takes us across the pond to a tight-knit and traditional Sikh community in London. Many of these families emigrated from the Punjab region for greater opportunities that the city offered. They quickly learned that there’s value in community and keeping with tradition though. Nicki, on the other hand, craves 21st century feminism and Western culture and has established independence outside of her family’s Punjabi traditions — much to their chagrin.

Venturing out on your own can mean struggles, so when Nicki finds an ad for a “creative writing” course at the local Punjabi community center, she applies. It pays, so that’s something. A miscommunication, though, brings in a small group of widows who are looking to learn basic English. Their expectations change when they find a sexy romance novel, and suddenly they want a safe space where they can write, read, and share erotic stories — something forbidden in their culture or a least forbidden in the open.

Nicki begins imagining the class as a liberation for these women who have been forced to lead lives all for their husbands even after their passing. In the process, she realizes there’s more to them than their white dupatta, which represent a widow status, and they start learning how to stick up for themselves and the importance of self-expression. As the taboo nature of these sessions starts attracting more women and leaking to the community, scandal and secrets start to spill, putting their lives in danger.

The first thing to note is this is not a book about sex. Sure, there are a lot of stories shared — fiction, nonfiction, and a lot of fiction stemming from real-life events and fantasies — focused on sex. But this beautifully written novel veers far from the romance genre; if anything, it borrows from it the fun parts that differ from our own lives. Punjabi Widows is a conduit for finding your voice, and that’s a powerful concept to convey in literature.

“You waste everything because you’ve always had everything.” — Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

It also proves that self-expression and tradition can co-exist. Western cultures are often critical of more traditional customs and societies, and we negatively stereotype them. As the female characters in this book demonstrate, they’re not interested in oppressive norms. They value their freedom and voices. Freedom isn’t one size fits all, and the characters just need an outlet so their voices can reach their full potential.

Speaking out can have consequences though as this book illustrates. Once the characters start breaking down boundaries, the plot takes an unexpected turn from the sex and girl talk, but it’s worthwhile nonetheless.

“By turns erotic, romantic, and mysterious, this tale of women defying patriarchal strictures enchants,” Kirkus Reviews writes.

The mysterious part was most surprising. Usually when a fun novel like this one kicks in the suspense, it can seem forced and out of place. Not with Punjabi Widows, which makes the mystery and secrets the catalyst for these women to meet, ultimately bringing the story full circle. Without secrecy and danger, they wouldn’t need to hide their desires and quest for independent thinking.

“The laughter that they shared filled the room, a shot of intoxicating warmth like the first hint of summer.” — Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

All seriousness aside, this book has one simple and important quality: It’s fun to read. I started it after I boarded my flight in Barcelona and finished right before we landed in New York (it was capable of keeping my post-trip depression at bay). Every page felt like I was sitting around with my girlfriends with a few bottles of wine, as if I were a part of the widows’ inner circle.

I laughed — many times — and squirmed in my seat from some very naughty language, and my eyes opened wide on countless occasions. It’s female and cultural empowerment without an ounce of pretension and with a great deal of creativity and wit. Glamour didn’t name it a “page-turner your commute will thank you for” for nothing.

You can easily relate to these characters even if you’re not Punjabi. Raise your hand if you’re a woman who felt you had to speak in a hushed voice if you wanted to talk about anything sexy or if you were compelled to look away or giggle at a sex scene during a movie. I mean, I feel slightly awkward writing this review and will feel even more so once I publish it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book though and will continue to support it because I know it’s important. Hopefully, if I keep doing that, my own awkwardness will subside.

“In traditional Indian morality tales, wayward children were the primary cause of heart conditions, cancerous lumps, hair loss and other ailments in their aggrieved parents.” — honestly just a great quote about parental guilt from Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

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