Nikki, the protagonist of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (HarperCollins India), fits the mould of a rebellious child of first-generation Indian immigrants in London. She’s a law school drop-out, lives by herself, works as a bartender, and finds it difficult to align her beliefs with the traditional, conservative notions of the Southall-residing Sikh community. When she stumbles upon a flyer at the local gurudwara, to teach creative writing to women from her community, she jumps at the opportunity – she’s passionate about women’s empowerment and “the editorial credentials would sit well on her bare resume”.
Soon, Nikki’s pre-conceived notions of the ‘orthodox’ widows trooping into her classes are shattered – even though illiterate, these women have active imaginations that find an outlet through evocative, fantasy-fuelled stories. Author Balli Kaur Jaswal spoke to Brunch on her latest work. Excerpts -
Erotic Stories… has a wonderfully unusual plot. How did the idea come to you? What were your inspirations for the various characters?
I’ve always been interested in the taboos surrounding women’s sexuality in South Asian communities, and how women who are silenced in the public sphere end up expressing themselves in private with other women in smaller, intimate groups. I’ve heard some older Punjabi women tell the filthiest jokes – only to their trusted female friends/ sisters/ daughters of course.
From the characters, Arvinder (one of the widows who attends the classes with her daughter Preetam) is definitely one of those older women who’s had enough with decorum – she doesn’t feel she has anything to lose by speaking her mind. I created Preetam to reflect some of the same intergenerational tensions that Nikki has with her mother. Except in this case, Preetam is the more proper and reserved one while Arvinder feels her daughter should be more liberated because she didn’t have that opportunity herself. Tarampal (the orthodox one who drops out) is the most troubled widow, and it was her deeply conservative and flawed values combined with her survival instinct that created a very duplicitous character, who sparked off a lot of the conflict in the novel.
You write about how close-knit and often, conservative, the Sikh-Punjabi community is. Was there ever an apprehension about tackling a supposedly taboo subject?
All of my novels have been somewhat critical of the diaspora culture and sometimes readers contact me to say “finally, you’ve written about my experience,” which is such a compliment. I was never really apprehensive about the storyline because I know that readers are aware it’s a work of fiction. And the reception has been very positive.
The book tackles important issues like consent, marital rape and honour killings. How critical was this for you, given that many of these are easily politicised today?
I don’t usually think of issues before I start writing a novel – the story has to come first. Within the Punjabi diaspora in the UK though, there are a lot of issues concerning women, so I didn’t feel like I could write a novel about women becoming empowered without addressing the forces that were oppressing them. I try not to veer into polemics in my writing, but it’s pretty obvious that I want us as a society to be more outraged about these problems.
Did you also live in London at any point? How did your own experiences of Southall distill into the storyline?
I lived in Norwich for a year and visited family friends in Southall quite often. I certainly felt pulled in two directions whenever I visited, which is how Nikki feels when she visits for the first time in the book. Southall was an intriguing place - on the western fringe of London, yet culturally much further removed from London. There was something very welcoming about this enclave of Punjabi immigrants, so I could see why it would appeal to new arrivals in a country that was hostile towards them, especially in the 1940s and 50s. But I was definitely an outsider because I don’t speak Punjabi and I’m not into Bollywood music and movies, and it was an alienating experience to be in a place where there seemed to be only one way to be an Indian woman. I wanted to write about the tensions in this place, and to explore the idea of women defying expectations and rewriting their own narratives.
The central narrative in your previous works, Inheritance and Sugarbread, is also focused around the Sikh diaspora. Given that you’ve lived in different countries (Russia, Australia, Japan and now Singapore), how important is the immigrant perspective when you write?
It’s significant because of all the worlds I had a chance to experience, owing to the travelling. The sense of displacement, alienation, the expectations of success, the pressure to fit in at the risk of losing one’s identity - these became familiar, personal themes. And when I read, I sought out stories where characters grappled with these ideas and triumphed. As I became older and began writing fiction, I became more interested in the more realistic scenarios – what happens when immigrants don’t follow the conventional paths of success or simply don’t live up to expectations? Moving to different countries gave me a lot of insight into how people set up and then adjust, or further limit, their expectations.
What’s coming next?
Erotic Stories is being adapted into a film, and the rights have been sold to Ridley Scott’s production company and Film4. I’m also working on a novel about three British-Indian sisters who go on a Sikh pilgrimage to India to reconnect with each other after their mother’s death. I’m excited to be writing a road trip story that features only women, as so many of these stories are from the male perspective. Traveling in India – especially Delhi and Punjab where the novel takes place – is an entirely different thing if you’re a woman, so I’m focusing on how restricted/threatened/vulnerable these three sisters feel and how their movements are policed by men. It’s also lighthearted with dark elements, similar in tone to Erotic Stories.
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