It’s a tale set in Southall, the mini-Punjab in London, written by a woman in Singapore. And it’s making waves in literary circles across the world. Published in March this year, “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” is flying off the book shelves in places as far apart as Melbourne and London. A dark but heart-warming comedy, the novel delves into the lives of Punjabi widows, who may have spent a lifetime being dutiful in the shadows of their fathers, husbands and brothers, but whose white “dupattas” hide their rich and colourful inner lives.
Balli Kaur Jaswal, the 33-year-old author born in Singapore, is no stranger to literary acclaim. In 2014, she was named the “Best Young Australian Novelist” by Sydney Morning Herald for her debut novel “Inheritance”. Her second novel “Sugarbread” was a finalist for Singapore’s 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Her current work was inspired by the time she spent in Southall.
According to The Bookseller, HarperCollins bagged Erotic Stories in a “strong” six-figure deal after staving off five other publishers to win the title at an auction. Director Sir Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions and Film4, which produced “The Martian”, has bought the film rights to the book.
Jaswal, whose father was in the foreign services, has lived all around the world, including Australia, Japan, Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, the US and the UK, but her Punjabi upbringing is at the heart of all her three novels.
Erotic stories follows Nikki, the 22-year-old self-appointed “fem fighter” who starts a creative writing class for women in a Southall gurdwara. To her dismay, the barely literate middle-aged and elderly women in her class are not interested in her feminist talk. But as they begin to open up, they start sharing steamy stories about their womanhood, sexuality, and hilarious escapades. Soon, Nikki realises that their stories may place them at a risk in a community policed by a group of unemployed men called the “Brothers”.
The book has received a warm response from reviewers. The Economist writes: “Ms Jaswal has written a funny and moving tale of desire and its discontents. It serves as a reminder that even the most traditional societies often come in 50 shades of grey.” Strongly recommending the novel, The Straits Times writes: “If you like your erotica with a social conscience, this is the book for you.”
Jaswal, who teaches English, turned to writing after receiving the David TK Wong writer-in-residence fellowship at the University of East Anglia, UK, in 2007. She has also received a writing fellowship from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Hailed as a leading voice of the Punjabi diaspora in Singapore, Jaswal’s first two novels are set in the island nation. Inheritance revolves around the mental illness of Amrit, the protagonist, who disappears in the middle of the night, only to return as a different person. Nobody in her conservative Punjabi family knows how to tackle her “problem” and their attempts to do so result in disastrous consequences.
Sugarbread is the coming-of-age story of Pin, a Punjabi girl growing up in Singapore, and trying to find out a secret about her mother. The book also tackles racism, and how hurtful it is even if it’s rooted in ignorance. Pin, for instance, is forbidden from wearing her “kara” (Sikh article of faith) during soccer practice. The school prefects also punish her for “wearing jewellery to school”.
Jaswal was teaching English at John Monash Science School in Melbourne when Inheritance was published. Her last teaching assignment was at an international school in Istanbul in 2015-2016.
She is married to Paul Howell, an Australian journalist, and the couple lives in Singapore.