With this book, Balli Kaur Jaswal has created a delightful, charming, and ultimately moving novel about female identity. Perhaps I should have expected it based upon the title alone, but admittedly I didn’t anticipate just exactly HOW erotic this little tale would be. Get your water spritzers ready, because this is one spicy read. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The eroticism in this book is done quite well, and it effectively lends itself toward the topic of female empowerment.
Nikki is a woman stuck between two vastly different worlds: the more traditional world of the Sikh community and the busy modern world of London. Nikki, at age 22, finds herself at odds with just about everyone. She’s a disappointment to her family after she drops out of law school with no clear plan in mind, and she’s a disappointment to the Sikh community as a woman with no desire to marry the first eligible Sikh man to come along, something her more traditional sister, Mindi, is actively seeking.
Nikki struggles with these issues of personal identity and family identity while she struggles to make ends meet by working at a depressing little pub in London located just below her meager flat. Fearing for the longevity of her job at this struggling pub, she takes a job teaching a group of Punjabi widows in London’s Southall community what she believes will be creative writing. What greets her are a group of mostly illiterate widows who just want to learn how to read and write in English. The class takes a completely different turn, however, when the widows find a collection of erotic stories in Nikki’s bag. They begin to pass the time in class by narrating and recording explicit tales of lust to one another. And, with that, I’ll never see vegetables the same way again.
As amusing as this sounds on the surface, this is a vitally important narrative. As one of the widows proclaims, “Nobody eavesdrops on old lady chatter. To them it’s all one buzzing noise.” These are women who, in traditional Punjabi society, have been written off as tired, old and sexless. Women, in general, are expected to be sexless. Sex is for the purpose of procreation. Lust and desire are taboo subjects relegated to the bedroom of a married couple, if they exist at all within a traditional marriage. What Nikki finds through her relationships with these women is a surprising kinship. Additionally, she discovers that her “traditional” Punjabi parents are much more modern than she’d ever considered, and that most of the women in her class would never have been given the kinds of opportunities or freedoms she and her sister were afforded. Over the course of the novel Nikki and the widows find their voices, both individually and collectively. They bridge a divide between two worlds seemingly opposed. Through their relationships with one another they are able to come to terms with and heal relationships with family and friends outside of their circle. Additionally, as the women in the Sikh community finally begin to speak out, we readers begin to see the healing power honesty and communication can have within a toxic culture bent on silencing women. Perhaps not everyone will be convinced immediately, but we have to start somewhere.
To accentuate this feminist undercurrent, Balli Kaur Jaswal spices things up a bit further by adding a bit of intrigue. Nikki and the widows find themselves embroiled in the mysteries surrounding the suspicious deaths of three young Punjabi women. They are also forced into secrecy of their illicit meetings due to the presence of the Brotherhood, a group of young Punjabi thugs who lurk about Southall threatening and intimidating women into remaining proper and submissive. Adding this detail was, at times, unnecessary, but it also accentuated exactly how dangerous subversiveness can be within traditional Sikh culture. It also helped to highlight a hidden truth about the unlikeliness of justice for young women whose lives are cut short because they dare to speak out against the powerful rulers in a toxic patriarchal society. Sadly, this part is not fiction.
When you piece all the details of this book together, it’s not difficult to see the link between women gaining the strength to talk about sex and women gaining the strength to talk about more complex issues surrounding women’s rights. A woman deserves a voice in the bedroom and a voice in the board room. Considering such, I’m surprised I don’t see more reviewers mention how vital Kulwinder’s place is in this narrative. Kulwinder plays two roles. She’s a respected member of the community who hires Nikki to teach the class, and she’s also the grieving mother of one of the dead girls. She’s juxtaposed with Nikki in an interesting way. While Nikki is a modern girl trying to find her place in Punjabi culture without losing her voice, Kulwinder is a more traditional woman attempting to gain a more powerful voice for Punjabi women within the confines of traditional culture while not sacrificing her respectability. It’s an admirable goal, but in the beginning she lacks both the courage and the tools with which to make her demands in a way that’s effective. While she initially has nothing but disdain for Nikki, Nikki is exactly the influence she needs to reach her eventual goals. And the reader can’t deny that Kulwinder’s initial harshness toward Nikki is due, in part, to the young girl’s similarities to Kulwinder’s daughter for whom she is still grieving.
On the surface this is a fun light-hearted read that’s more than a little bit raunchy. A deeper analysis shows this as an important book about female identity. It’s a testament to the fact that a woman is never too young or old to find her voice. Additionally, it provided a critique of many of the antiquated ideas of gender roles in the Sikh community while simultaneously celebrating the positive aspects of the community as a whole. Overall, I give this one 4 stars.