Book review: Balli Kaur Jaswal brings back the comedy for The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters

Singaporean novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal keeps up the comedy for The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters.
Singaporean novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal keeps up the comedy for The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters.PHOTO: HARPERCOLLINS

FICTION

THE UNLIKELY ADVENTURES OF THE SHERGILL SISTERS

By Balli Kaur Jaswal

HarperCollins/ Paperback/ 312 pages/ $26.43/ Major bookstores

3.5 stars


When Sita Kaur Shergill dies in a London hospital, she leaves behind a last request that her three daughters make a pilgrimage to India, the homeland to which she could not return. This journey, she hopes, will bring them closer together - if they don't squabble to death first.

Singaporean novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal established her comic chops with the brilliant Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows (2017), which has been picked up for a film deal and chosen by actress Reese Witherspoon for her book club.

She keeps up the comedy for The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters, which is an apt foil to Erotic Stories, if more off-kilter in its humour - there is a ludicrous sub-plot that involves kicking a fish to death.

The Shergill sisters, who are first-generation British Punjabis, are forced to endure one another's company as they travel from Delhi to the Golden Temple in Amritsar to carry out their mother's final rites.

There is plenty of emotional baggage to check in along the way. Prim school principal Rajni came to blows with voluble actress Jezmeen at their mother's deathbed.

Rajni is in denial that her teenage son is about to marry a woman twice his age. Jezmeen has just lost her television job. Finding another is hard enough with the lack of diversity in British TV as it is, but on top of that, she has gone viral on social media in the worst way.

Neither of them understands what their sweet youngest sister Shirina is going through behind the facade of her perfect marriage, which she arranged on a Sikh matrimonial website.

 
 

They bicker their way through a blur of temples and tourist spots, get embroiled in a women's rights march and meet a daredevil chauffeur who insists his name is Tom Hanks.

The story is reminiscent of the 2007 Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited, in which three estranged American brothers take a train journey across India following their father's death.

But India is not the scenic backdrop to touristic epiphany here. It comes alive in all its colourful, problematic glory, as the sisters try to parse their complex relationships with it as Punjabi women born in diaspora.

Do you belong in the place where you were born but where you are not "mainstream" enough to appear on a screen? Or in the place of your ancestral roots, where a woman's right to safety and sometimes even existence is questioned?

Jaswal's humour hides a hard edge, one that pushes against certain traditions, racism and injustice. The ending leans heavily towards sentimentality, but her characters are so funny and well-realised that one is inclined to forgive that.

If you like this, read: Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows by the same author (HarperCollins, 2017, $19.26 Books Kinokuniya). When Nikki, a young Punjabi woman, takes a job helming a writing workshop for women at the Sikh gurdwara temple in Southall, London, but what her middle-aged and elderly students really want is to compose erotica.