Balli Kaur Jaswal, the Singapore-based author who is in the news for her book ‘Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows’, tells HT about how India is not only a part of her past but also reflects in her present.
Growing up, what was the first story that you ever thought of writing?
I wrote lots of little stories and plays when I was young. The first story I remember writing was for a book-making project at my international primary school in Tokyo in Grade 2. We had just finished reading a few Roald Dahl books and we paired up to write our own version of ‘The Magic Finger’. I remember the thrill of writing and creating illustrations — even though I’m terrible at drawing) — and then putting the book together with a cover and binding. It was very exciting to see the final product.
What role does Punjab play in your books?
I think the diaspora has a bigger role in my books than the actual physical place. I write more about the people who have left, and how they adapt to their new homes. India is always part of their past but it’s also something they take with them as a personal item into the present.
What inspired you to write ‘Erotic Stories...’?
The idea came from my numerous visits to Southall in London. I was really fascinated by this Punjabi migrant enclave where so many traditional values and customs were preserved, yet it was in Britain, which was so different culturally. I became especially interested in what it was like to be a woman in such a setting, and it occurred to me that the widows were the most invisible women in this society. I wanted to give them a voice and an opportunity to express desires that were traditionally denied to them when they were ‘somebody’s wife’.
This is the first of a two-book deal? What is the second about?
My second novel is about three British-Indian sisters who go to India on a pilgrimage to reconnect with each other after their mother dies. It’s another dark comedy, and a road trip story featuring women, which we don’t often see.
Do you follow any other authors writing about the Indian/Punjabi diaspora?
Yes; some examples are Nikita Lalwani, whose novel ‘Gifted’ I am re-reading; Meera Syal; Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories are still some of my favourites... Akhil Sharma; the list goes on.
Any favourites book?
‘The God of Small Things’ (Arundhati Roy) is my favourite novel.