Nikki lives in cosmopolitan West London, where she tends bar at the local pub. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she’s spent most of her twenty-odd years distancing herself from the traditional Sikh community of her childhood, preferring a more independent (that is, Western) life. When her father’s death leaves the family financially strapped, Nikki, a law school dropout, impulsively takes a job teaching a “creative writing” course at the community center in the beating heart of London’s close-knit Punjabi community.
Because of a miscommunication, the proper Sikh widows who show up are expecting to learn basic English literacy, not the art of short-story writing. When one of the widows finds a book of sexy stories in English and shares it with the class, Nikki realizes that beneath their white dupattas, her students have a wealth of fantasies and memories. Eager to liberate these modest women, she teaches them how to express their untold stories, unleashing creativity of the most unexpected—and exciting—kind.
As more women are drawn to the class, Nikki warns her students to keep their work secret from the Brotherhood, a group of highly conservative young men who have appointed themselves the community’s “moral police.” But when the widows’ gossip offers shocking insights into the death of a young wife—a modern woman like Nikki—and some of the class erotica is shared among friends, it sparks a scandal that threatens them all.
I was initially drawn to this book because of the title – I mean, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows? What an amazing title! However, once I begun the book I knew that it was so much more than a catchy title and a novelty idea.
There is a lot going on in this novel. You have the actual erotic stories, many of which are quite hilarious and genuinely steamy. I loved the fact that these stories smashed the idea that women, particularly older woman, are sexless beings. The fact that these stories furthermore allowed the women to explore parts of themselves that they had never realised before was also great. For example, one of the women writes a lesbian sex scene, and many others write about cheating on their husbands so to finally experience pleasure they could not get in their arranged marriages.
The culture of Punjabi Sikhs in the UK is also vital to this novel. A main concern is arranged marriages, which are represented in a very nuanced way. Nikki, the main character, is firmly against them, whilst her sister is looking for a sort of modern equivalent. However, there are representations of horrific arranged marriages, and the impact that these can have on entire families. As I am not Punjabi or Sikh I cannot speak for the accuracy of these representations. However, this is an own voices novel, and it rang true from all the stories that friends have told me about their own Indian families.
There is finally also a thriller-like aspect to the book, which I was not expecting at all! The dark undercurrent of morality and what it means to be honourable ran throughout the novel, which really lifted it to another level of brilliance. I can honestly say that Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is one of the best books that I have read all year, and I thoroughly encourage everyone to pick it up.
There are trigger warnings for suicide, graphic sexual content, murder, attempted murder, infidelity, forced marriage, and child marriage.