Widows, draped in white, can – and do – have deep shades of desire too. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: A Novel by Balli Kaur Jaswal, set in England, deals with the contours of their lust, longing and secret sexual fantasies.

Having spent their lives in the shadow of patriarchy, doing myriad chores and duties largely assigned to them by men, they have accummulated untold stories mirroring their colourful inner lives – in sharp contrast to how they are widely perceived, as drab and dreary people.

This novel – film rights have already been bought by Sir Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and Film4 – sets out to lift the lid on the seemingly regular lives of people in general and women in particular in the Punjabi community in London’s Southall, which is variously described as the “mini-Punjab” and “Little India”. Despite – or perhaps because of – living in the West, most Indian communities here strive to protect their “sacred culture and tradition”. In some instances, they guard their “honour” at the cost of their loved ones who even lose their lives in the process. Jaiswal tears into the internal and private affairs of this community with relish exposing a seamy underbelly of deprivation, desire, and despair.

Enter the outsider

At the centre of the narrative is Nikki, a British citizen born to Punjabi parents who had migrated to the UK. She is a minor rebel by the traditional standards of her family, a modern Punjabi girl who wants to live her life on her own terms and marry by her own choice. She leaves her parent’s house to live independently, takes up a day job at a pub and, to augment her earnings, takes up an evening job teaching creative writing to Sikh widows. Here she meets her boss, Kulwinder Kaur, who has been living in a depressing cocoon of her own since her daughter’s death in mysterious circumstances.

This is a cleverly-plotted novel that operates at several levels, combining the elements of a thriller, a romance, a family drama, and, of course, sex and erotica, as the title suggests. The threads come together in the form of plots and sub-plots that weave around one another to create what is often a gripping, fast-paced narrative.

Early in the novel, we meet the Punjabi widows who are Nikki’s students – Preetam Kaur, Tarampal Kaur, Sheena Kaur, Manjeet Kaur and Arvinder Kaur, among others. But far from being a sorority of Kaurs, they turn out to have their own distinctive stories, with one particular element in common for most of them: a lack of fulfilling sex with their husbands before they became widows.

Hired, ostensibly, to help them write stories – with a vague idea of an anthology – Nikki soon discovers that she has been tricked by her boss into teaching the group how to read and write English, for most of them are unlettered. She does her best to teach them the alphabet for starters, but the widows, catalysed by Sheena, have a very different idea: they plan to compose stories, which Sheena will transcribe.

To Nikki’s surprise, the first story narrated in the class turns out to be about suppressed desires finding an outlet, with explicit sex scenes. Nikki isn’t sure if this a good idea, which offends her students:

“We’d be invisible in India. I suppose it makes no difference that we’re in England.”

“Just because our husbands are gone, we have plenty of experience with desire, we talk about it all the time too.”

“We’re widows. We don’t have any more contact with men. We aren’t allowed.”

The life of a widow

The widows have no choice but to use this route – their lives are under constant moral surveillance, as is Nikki’s. For example, Brothers, a group of young, unemployed men who consider themselves Southall’s morality police, patrol the temple grounds and remind people to cover their heads.

Why must these widows become “de-sexed” creatures after they lose their husbands? Why must they live in a permanent state of mourning? Why should they be expected to forget about physical desire and turn to spirituality? These questions are at the root of the novel, and the erotic stories become the widows’ statements of rebellion, going on to have a transformative effect on their own lives as well as those of Nikki and of the larger Punjabi society in Southall, which has been sweeping its own repressive ways of living beneath the carpet.

The erotic stories of the title appear in some detail in the novel, each with its own flavour and theme of sex: marital, pre-marital, extramarital, honeymoon, same-sex, and more. The widows tell bold and stimulating stories with fervour and, refreshingly, a dash of humour – for instance, they insist on using the names of vegetables for body parts.

Through and around these stories, the lives of the widows come through. There’s Manjeet, who had a difficult time finding a suitable husband owing to a prominent mole on her face. She finds one, but eventually he leaves her for a nurse and she finds comfort amidst the group of widows. There’s Sheena, a young widow who has chosen to live with her ill mother-in-law.

There’s Tarampal Kaur, one of the most mysterious characters in the novel, who keeps the suspense intact till the end. Her husband – many years older than her – was the temple priest, in whom the devotees would confide their secrets and dilemmas. Before his death, he shared the information with Tarampal, who has decided to cash in on it.

There are Arvinder Kaur and Preetam Kaur, the mother-daughter duo who have a tiff as the mother accidentally reveals the secret of her own extra-marital affair in the early years of her marriage. For all of them, and for others like them, life is a state of repressed existence, as Erotic Stories… reveals in the course of taking its crime-thriller plot to a conclusion.

Jaswal’s handling of the controversial issues is deft and she employs an inventive technique to tell her story, without creating the bitter aftertaste of telling unpalatable truths.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: A Novel, Balli Kaur Jaswal, HarperCollins India

Shireen Quadri is a marketing and communications professional who has worked with several publishing houses. She is founder and publisher, The Punch Magazine. On Twitter and Instagram, her handle is @shireenquadri.