49 pages 1 hour read

Balli Kaur Jaswal

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (2017) is Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third novel. Born and raised in Singapore, Jaswal is of Punjabi Sikh Indian heritage. Her novels challenge the racism experienced by Sikhs throughout the diaspora. They also challenge patriarchal oppression experienced from within. Formerly colonized by the British, Sikh Indians have formed communities in Britain and other former British colonies such as Singapore and Canada. Jaswal’s first two novels, Inheritance (2013) and Sugarbread (2016), take place in Singapore. Her next two novels, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (2017) and The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters (2019), focus on characters of British Indian identity. Her upcoming book Now You See Us (2023) returns to Singapore but expands to tell the stories of the migrant domestic worker communities there.

Jaswal’s earliest two novels won local book prizes in Australia and Singapore, but her popularity soared when her third novel was chosen for the Reese Witherspoon “Hello Sunshine” online book club. At times a light-hearted romance and at others an indictment of the oppression of women within conservative, patriarchal communities, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows tells the story of modern and floundering Nikki. This main character, facing the pressures of her Sikh heritage and British society, struggles to find her true identity.

This guide uses the HarperCollins 2017 edition.

Content Warning: This book contains erotic stories and depictions of violence against women, including murder and suicide.

Plot Summary

The novel opens in medias res. Mindi, the more traditional sister, is seeking a husband, and she wants her more modern sister, Nikki, to help her by posting a matrimonial ad on the bulletin board of the big Sikh temple in Southall. Nikki reluctantly agrees. While there, Nikki notices a job ad for an instructor of a writing class. Dissatisfied with her life working in a pub with half a law degree, Nikki decides teaching women will help fulfill her desire to do something meaningful.

Nikki is interviewed by Kulwinder, an older Sikh woman in charge of community activities at the temple. Kulwinder is somewhat hostile to Nikki’s modernity, which calls to mind her daughter, Maya, with whom Kulwinder had a tumultuous relationship. However, as Nikki is the only applicant, Kulwinder reluctantly hires her. Both Nikki and Kulwinder are unhappy with their lives. Nikki believes herself responsible for her father’s sudden death, and Kulwinder has grown frustrated with the apathy in her marriage since Maya’s death.

Nikki is disappointed that many of her students are illiterate in English, meaning that she’ll be teaching a language rather than a creative writing course. She buys materials for the class and, as a joke for her more conservative sister, a book of erotic stories. In the classroom, however, Nikki's students accidentally discover the book; this discovery encourages them to begin sharing similar stories of their own design.

Kulwinder prepares for a visit to India, but she’s hurt when her husband elects not to accompany her. Believing that Nikki’s classes are not simple language lessons, Kulwinder lies about her return date so she can spy. The women in Nikki’s class are mostly older widows who are largely invisible within their male-dominated Sikh community. Though Nikki initially accepts this patriarchal view of her students, she soon learns that they are vibrant women with their own needs and desires. The narrative reveals the women’s humanity in part through conversations during the class period. It also shares the erotic stories the women dictate in Punjabi into the tape recorder Nikki bought for the class; a younger student who grew up in Britain, Sheena, transcribes and translates the stories into English.

Two sub-plots develop. One concerns Nikki’s budding romance with the attractive but somewhat enigmatic Jason, a Sikh she meets while sneaking a cigarette outside the temple. Though Nikki likes him, Jason’s mysterious phone calls and refusal to invite her to his apartment leave her suspicious. The second sub-plot concerns the death of Maya, Kulwinder’s daughter. Nikki originally learns of Maya’s death from one of her students, Tarampal, who claims Nikki died by suicide; however, other students hint that this is not true. Nikki visits Tarampal to ask questions, which attracts the attention of Maya’s former husband, Jagdev.

Meanwhile, the erotic stories circulate surreptitiously around the larger Sikh community in the United Kingdom; even Nikki’s mother and aunt gossip about them. Nikki’s mother wonders if Nikki is involved, as the stories originate in an English class taught at a temple. Hints of menace earlier in the story intensify with the revelation of incidents of honor killings and more generalized violence toward women. Sheena, one of Nikki’s students, has a connection to a young woman murdered years ago. In addition, Jagdev has been threatening Kulwinder. The women worry that the Brothers, self-appointed morality police, will learn of their class, which is growing in size.

Kulwinder, back earlier than stated from her trip, barges into the classroom. She snatches the binder of stories from Nikki and fires her. As the group can no longer meet on temple grounds, Nikki suggests they meet in the pub where she works. Although the women are anxious about the setting, they are committed to the project and overcome their discomfort. Jason shows up too, ready to reveal to Nikki what he has been hiding. Kulwinder discovers that her office has been not only vandalized but also desecrated, and someone has stolen forms with Nikki’s personal information. Kulwinder realizes that Nikki is in danger and, along with other students, rushes to save her.

Tarampal is waiting for Nikki outside her apartment as a ploy to help Jagdev gain entry. Jagdev, the son of a family friend, lived with Tarampal during his brief marriage to Maya. He and Tarampal are lovers. When Maya found out, unbeknownst to Tarampal, Jagdev murdered her—allegedly to protect Tarampal’s reputation. As Nikki has evidence that Jagdev forged Maya’s suicide note, Jagdev plans to murder her too. Inside the apartment, a scuffle ensues, and Jagdev beats the two women before setting the flat on fire. Kulwinder and Nikki’s students arrive in time to save her life.

Both Kulwinder and Nikki wake in the hospital. On release, Kulwinder decides to share the erotic stories with the Sikh community rather than suppress the voices of the women. Jason writes Nikki a letter explaining his situation, revealing that he recently went through a messy divorce and wanted to spare Nikki’s reputation. Uncertain what to do, Nikki revisits the places she and Jason went on dates, ending at a bookstore. There, she finds he has purchased for her the very copy of a Beatrix Potter book she saw years ago on a trip to India.

The last denouement chapter finds Nikki with Jason and back at law school, pursuing a degree in social justice. Kulwinder, now promoted to the new temple building, has the funding and support from the male-dominated board to establish programs for women like domestic violence legal aid and all-female gyms. Mindi has found a “suitable boy,” and a publisher will translate and publish the erotic stories.