Exotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

‘I’ll be mentoring women to write their stories.’

I would never have picked up this novel based on the name.  Never.  But when someone whose opinions I rate highly, read and reviewed this book, I was intrigued.

The novel is set in London.  Nikki, a young woman who is a law school dropout and struggling with her family’s expectations, attends the local community centre at the temple to post a notice for her sister Mindi on the notice board.  Mindi is seeking a traditional arranged marriage and thinks it prudent to advertise locally rather than invite Indian men who might only be seeking a British visa.

While posting the notice, Nikki (who needs more income than her current employment in a bar provides) sees an advertisement for a woman to teach creative writing.  Nikki gets the job, but the women who enrol in her class do so because they think she will teach them to read and write.

The women who enrol, the Punjabi widows in the novel, may live in London but they have maintained the traditional values of their Indian homeland and are essentially cut off from participating in life more broadly as a consequence.  As widows, they are in mourning.  Not all of them are elderly but most of them are illiterate.

‘What matters is that we’re keeping busy.’

While this novel focusses on the women and their classes (and their stories), it is what happens outside the classroom that held my attention.  There’s the mysterious death of Maya (the daughter of Kulwinder), there’s the fraught relationship Nikki has with her mother and sister, and there’s the threat posed to the women’s group by ‘The Brothers’ the conservative men who seek to police women.

What will happen if the stories are shared outside the classroom?

This novel made me think about cultural differences and expectations.  Some of the stories made me smile, but what really warmed my heart was that the women learned to venture outside some of their customary constraints.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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