If I had to sum up in a single image why it took me nearly a month to finish Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, it would be this — sitting in the waiting room at Urgent Care with a desperate burning in my throat and a two hour wait in store, this book gripped firmly in my hands as I try to ignore my own discomfort.
As much as this was exactly the kind of book I’d normally polish of a weekend, I happened to pick it up during one of those busy times where my body has decided to remind me it’s pushing 30. I’m fine — just a pill stuck in my throat leading to something called pill-induced esophagitis, another fun new diagnosis to add to my mental map of weird shit a human body can do.
Now things have settled down, I was able to settle in with this compelling story about women and their refusal to be narrowly defined and stuffed into the boxes others would have them in.
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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a title that grabs the attention, and the beautiful cover and Reese’s Book Club credentials add to the book’s charm. I picked it out as part of a Gift of Reading box I gave myself (what can I say, the promise of skincare and hot cocoa with a book and a scarf just shouts “treat yourself” to me).
The book follows the story of Nikki, a modern Punjabi woman who moves out of her mother’s home and into an apartment above the bar where she works. She’s abandoned becoming a lawyer and isn’t quite sure what she wants to do next, but she knows it isn’t working at the bar forever. When she stops in Southall to post her sister’s marriage profile on the community board, another posting catches her eye — one seeking a teacher for a creative writing class.
Kulwinder Kaur didn’t quite know what the advertisement was asking, since English isn’t her first language. She just knew it had to do with writing and that it would give her a start at holding classes for women at the temple. Nikki is the only one who responds to the ad, and she hires her despite her misgivings about the girl’s modern ways.
While these two women are the main points of view through which the story is told, this book holds the stories of so many other women, as well. Nikki’s class fills with Punjabi widows who feel no one sees them anymore, now their marriages have ended. Behind their widow’s clothing they’re hiding hundreds of stories about the pleasures they enjoyed — or imagined — in their marriages.
The class begins telling these stories aloud and recording them for posterity, but it’s safe to say the conservative Brothers who patrol their community wouldn’t be so happy to read these stories. While this is part of the underlying tension of the story, I was personally more invested in the question of what happened to Kulwinder’s daughter, Maya — something Nikki becomes curious about, as well.
I loved how Balli Kaur Jaswal incorporated the actual stories the widows told throughout the pages, adding quite a bit of spice even as the story’s own romance simmers quietly in the background.
In fact, and I never thought I’d be saying this, I’m not entirely sure the story needed this little love story, at all. There would have been so much here between Nikki’s growth and new appreciation for her culture and community and Kulwinder’s story of trying to come to terms with the loss of her daughter.
To me, the heart of the story is Nikki learning not to completely reject her parents’ way of viewing the world and Kulwinder learning not to be so stuck in her ways. It’s very much about meeting in the middle and seeing people for all that they are, rather than just your first impressions of them. I love having such a full and robust cast of female characters of varying ages and experiences brought to the page, as well.
In all, I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading women’s fiction, or a good steamy romance novel, since the stories penned by these widows are erotic, indeed!
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