Entering the community centre building afterwards, Nikki was lost in thought. The woman in the langar hall had appeared so certain when she spoke of death and honour. Nikki couldn’t imagine any offspring of Kulwinder’s getting caught up in some act of dangerous resistance as the women had implied. Then again, Kulwinder was so unyielding that perhaps her daughter had rebelled.

Laughter rang down the corridor, breaking her thoughts. Strange, she thought. There were no other classes on at the same time. As she made her way to the room, the noise became louder and she could hear a voice clearly speaking.

“He puts his hand on her thigh as she’s driving the car and, as she’s driving, he moves his hand closer between her legs. She can’t concentrate on driving, so she tells him, ‘let me just get to a small side street’. He tells her – why do we have to wait?’

Nikki froze outside the door. It was Sheena’s voice. Another woman called out.

“Chee, why is he so impatient? Can’t keep it in his pants until they get to a side street? She should punish him by driving him around the car park until his little balloon deflates.”

Another wave of laughter. Nikki threw open the door.

Sheena was sitting on the front desk with the book open in her hands and all the women were crowded around her. When they saw Nikki, they scurried back to their seats. The colour drained from Sheena’s face. “So sorry,” she said to Nikki. “We saw that you had brought us books. I was just translating a story...” She slid off the desk and went to join the ladies at their seats.

“That book is mine. It’s private. It’s obviously not for any of you,” Nikki said when she felt that she could speak. She reached into the bag and pulled out the workbooks. “These are for you.” She tossed them onto the desk and put her head in her hands. The women were silent.

“Why were you all here so early?”

“You said seven o’clock,” said Arvinder.

“I said seven thirty, since that was the time you all preferred,” Nikki said.

The women turned to look accusingly at Manjeet.

“I remember her saying seven o’clock last week,” Manjeet insisted.

“I remember it.”

“Turn up your hearing aid next time,” Arvinder said.

“I don’t need to,” Manjeet said. She tucked her scarf behind her

ear to reveal the hearing aid to the class. “This has never had a battery in it.”

“Why would you wear a hearing aid if you didn’t need one?” Nikki asked.

Manjeet dropped her head in embarrassment. “Completes the whole widow look,” Sheena explained.

“Oh,” Nikki said. She waited for a further explanation from Manjeet but she simply nodded and stared at her hands.

Preetam raised her hand. “Excuse me, Nikki. Can we change the start time back to 7 pm?”

Nikki sighed. “I thought 7.30 worked better with your bus schedule.”

“It does, but if we finish earlier, it means we can get home at a decent hour.”

“Thirty minutes doesn’t make that much difference does it?” Sheena asked.

“It does for Anya and Kapil,” Preetam said. “And what about Rajiv and Priyaani?”

Movie hall in Southall, London. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Nikki guessed these were her grandchildren but then the other women let out a collective groan.

“Those bloody idiots. One day they’re in love, the next day she is confiding to the servants that she wants to marry someone else,” Sheena said. “Don’t change the time, Nikki. Preetam’s just wasting her time following a television series.”

“I am not,” Preetam said.

“Then you’re wasting electricity,” Arvinder chided. “Do you know how much our bill was last month?” Preetam shrugged. “Of course you don’t,” Arvinder muttered. “You waste everything because you’ve always had everything.”

“Do you two share a home?” Nikki asked. She noticed a resemblance. Both women were light-skinned, with the same thin lips and striking greyish brown eyes. “Sisters?”

“Mother and daughter,” Arvinder said, pointing to herself and then Preetam. “Seventeen years apart, but thank you for thinking that I’m that young.”

“Or that Preetam’s that old,” Sheena teased.

“Have you always lived together?” Nikki asked. She could not imagine a world where she would live with Mum into her senior citizen years and retain her sanity.

“Only since my husband died,” Preetam said. “How long has it been – hai!” she suddenly cried out. “Three months.” She took the edge of her dupatta and dabbed at the corners of her eyes.

Balli Kaur Jaswal.

“Oh, enough with the theatrics,” Arvinder said. “It’s been three years.”

“But it’s still so fresh,” Preetam moaned. “Has it really been that long?”

“You know very well it has been,” Arvinder said sternly. “I don’t know where you got this idea that widows have to cry and beat their chests every time their husbands are mentioned but it’s unnecessary.”

“She got it from the evening dramas,” Sheena said.

“There. Another reason to cut back on the television,” Arvinder said.

“I think it’s very sweet,” Manjeet said. “I want to be sad like that too. Did you faint at his funeral?”

“Twice,” Preetam said proudly. “And I begged them not to cremate him.”

“I remember that,” Sheena said. “You made a huge fuss before passing out and then you woke up and started all over again.” She rolled her eyes at Nikki. “You have to do these things, see, otherwise people accuse you of being unfeeling.”

“I know,” Nikki said. After Dad died, Auntie Geeta had come over to visit, black rivulets of mascara running down her cheeks. She wanted to mourn with Mum and was surprised that Mum remained dry-eyed, having done her crying in private. When she noticed a bubbling pot of curry on the stove, she became indignant. “You’re eating? I had nothing after my husband died. My sons had to force it into my mouth.” Feeling pressured, Mum refrained from eating the curry and then wolfed it down after Auntie Geeta left.

“You are all lucky to be able to grieve like that,” Manjeet said. “Women like me don’t get a funeral or any sort of ceremony.”

“Now, now, Manjeet, don’t go putting it on yourself. There are no women like you. Just men like him,” Arvinder said.

“I don’t understand...” Nikki said.

“Are we going to do any work or is this another class of introductions?” Tarampal interrupted. She shot Nikki a disapproving look.

“We have less than an hour now,” Nikki said. She handed the books out to the women. “There are some alphabet exercises in here.” She gave Sheena a letter-writing worksheet she had printed off the internet.

Excerpted with permission from Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, Balli Kaur Jaiswal, HarperCollins India.