Sex, lies and widowhood: Widows and their erotic fantasies

Mar 12, 2017, 10:58 IST | Janaki Viswanathan

Balli Kaur Jaswal
Balli Kaur Jaswal

Somewhere in west London's suburb Southall, an unofficial anthology of erotica takes shape. Not within a seedy bar but at an adult literacy class held for widows in the local gurdwara. Nikki, teacher of the class, and the protagonist of Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, is shocked at first, but gradually opens up to her classroom of supposedly solemn widows and their keen sense of sexuality.

East and West and the expat
Jaswal admits that in her first two novels - Inheritance and Sugarbread - she stayed closer to home (Singapore), and borrowed from her own experiences. "I became braver about venturing into new territory afterwards. London's Punjabi community is unique because it is very much a place as much as a support network. A large concentration of Punjabis thrive in Southall, and I couldn't think of a better physical setting - with its samosa stands and gurdwaras - than Southall," she says.

Her earlier novels, both set in Singapore, dealt with cultural identity and racism experienced by an expat. While Erotic Stories… also talks of this, the texture is slightly different. This, Jaswal believes, is because the expat dilemma changes slightly in a western country. The cultural divide between East and West is more pronounced for Indians in Western countries, as opposed to in Asian countries. "Some cultural notions of saving face, keeping up appearances and competitiveness are common in Singaporean-Chinese households, whereas they might need to be explained a bit more in Western countries," she explains.

The novel, she says, will resonate well with women from any culture where female sexuality is considered taboo and uncouth. "I think Erotic Stories tackles a lot of issues - women's sexuality, generational conflicts in traditional communities, the tension between tradition and modernity, Western ideas of feminism versus Eastern versions, the concept of honour in the overseas Sikh community, domestic violence, casual sexism, arranged versus forced marriage, parental expectations… the list goes on."

Under the veil
The idea came to Jaswal when, while visiting a gurdwara in Southall, she noticed the quietly shuffling women. It brought alive her imagination of what they might be underneath those layers of white. She picked the widows as the frontrunners of her story because "I love how these women are dismissed by society and not given a voice, but readers get a front row seat to their nuanced and empowered conversations about their desires and needs."

Nikki, the 22-year-old rebel protagonist and law-school dropout, also initially dismisses the widowed women she teaches at the gurdwara. Until they shock her with their unbounded sexual imagination within the confines of the classroom. As Nikki grows closer to her students and the worlds they inhabit, she also comes into contact with the quasi-traditionalist in-charge Kulvinder, a woman dealing with her own demons involving a dead daughter.

Erotic Stories… has already been picked up by Scott Free Productions for a screen adaptation, and about this Jaswal says quite simply: Scott Free and Film Four have done some remarkable work in the past, and if the film gets made (it's a possibility, not a guarantee - lots of things have to fall into place for this to happen) I'm confident from our conversations that they'll make an adaptation that respects the story and characters."

Movie adaptation and possible bestseller status apart, quiz Jaswal about whether Indians will ever understand that women can be sexual too, and pat comes the reply: "I think most Indians understand it; it's accepting it that's the challenge. Most of the (male-dominated) resistance to women's sexuality comes from fear of something powerful that they can't control." For her part, Jaswal says she was very forthcoming with her own family about Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. "I didn't discuss the content with relatives but they had some idea of what I was writing because I was very forthcoming with the title and the premise from the beginning," she says.

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