Reviews

Erotica with a social conscience

Racism, sexism and domestic violence lurk beneath the sex and giggles in Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows.
Racism, sexism and domestic violence lurk beneath the sex and giggles in Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows.PHOTO: ST FILE

Balli Kaur Jaswal makes her British debut with an irreverent comedy about a woman who wants to help illiterate widows

Forget Fifty Shades Of Grey. If you like your erotica with a social conscience, this is the book for you.

Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal makes her British debut with this warm irreverent comedy that is a gentle nudge at rigid social mores.

The book, which was sold to HarperCollins in a hotly contested auction with five other publishers, may seem lighter in tone than her first two novels, both family dramas involving Singapore's Punjabi Sikh community.

Yet, underneath the sex and giggles hum the same sinister currents of racism, sexism and domestic violence.

  • FICTION

  • Racism, sexism and domestic violence lurk beneath the sex and giggles in Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows.EROTIC STORIES FOR PUNJABI WIDOWS

    By Balli Kaur Jaswal

    HarperCollins/ Paperback/ 308 pages/$28.89/ Books Kinokuniya/

    4/5 stars

This time, the story unfolds in the London district of Southall, where British Punjabis have formed a tight-knit community, closed off from a city in which they feel alien and which has made little effort to understand them.

Nikki, a young Punjabi woman whose modern ideas have estranged her from her family, applies to the Southall gurdwara temple to helm a writing workshop for women.

She has grand plans of bringing literary enlightenment to the illiterate widows of Southall, but her middle-aged and elderly students prefer to spend class time spinning raunchy fantasies of what they are missing out on in the bedroom. These range from standard bodice- rippers to downright kinky inventions. One will, for instance, never be able to look at ghee the same way again.

The clandestine class begins to grow as more women clamour to share steamy stories, sparking a sexual revolution in the conservative community. But the hilarious escapades of Nikki's class mask the real stakes of rebelling against such a society.

Jaswal adeptly conveys the myriad microaggressions that could build up into something worse, from the casual racism the Indian characters face from other Londoners, to the oppression of women in the name of virtue. A group of young unemployed Sikh men, who call themselves the Brothers, patrol the neighbourhood, harassing girls who do not cover up.

Nikki's annoyance at her sister for getting an arranged marriage escalates into horror when she learns that a widow in her class was married off at the age of 10.

As she struggles to keep the true nature of the class a secret from its organiser, the severe community director Kulwinder Kaur, she gets embroiled in the unsolved mystery of the death of Kulwinder's daughter.

The plot edges towards a somewhat predictable denouement and certain aspects feel tacked on, especially Nikki's romance with a man she meets at the gurdwara.

But in a world where E.L. James' Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy somehow continues to dominate bestseller lists and box offices with misleading notions of female sexuality, tales like this are sorely needed to give a real, unabashed voice to what women - young and old - want.

If you liked this, read: Inheritance by the same author (Epigram Books, 2016, $26.64, Books Kinokuniya), about the fissures in a Punjabi family in Singapore from the 1970s to the 1990s, as the nation goes through social and economic upheaval.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'Erotica with a social conscience'. Print Edition | Subscribe