If a book about women, culture, legacy and, well, some super sexy stories, sounds right up your street, you're definitely going to want to get your hands on Balli Kaur Jaswal's new book, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. It follows Nikk, who lives in cosmopolitan West London, where she tends bar at the local pub. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she’s spent most of her adulthood distancing herself from the traditional Sikh community of her childhood, preferring a more independent life. When her father’s death leaves the family financially strapped, Nikki impulsively takes a job teaching a "creative writing" course at the community center in the heart of London’s close-knit Punjabi community.
But, 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.
Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, available now, is being hailed as lively, sexy, and thought-provoking East-meets-West story about community, friendship, and women’s lives at all ages. Before you head to the bookstore, Bustle has an exclusive excerpt from the book below.
Twenty years ago, in her first and last attempt to be British, Kulwinder Kaur bought a bar of Yardley English Lavender Soap. It was a purchase she justified by noting that the family’s regular bar of Neem soap had shrank to a sliver from frequent use. When Sarab reminded her that they had a closet stocked with necessities from India (toothpaste, soap, hair oil, Bryl cream, turban starch and several bottles of feminine wash that he had mistaken for shampoo) Kulwinder reasoned that eventually, their toiletries from the motherland would run out. She was only preparing for the inevitable.
The next morning, she woke early and dressed Maya in woolly tights, a plaid skirt and a jumper. At breakfast, she anxiously reminded Maya to keep still, lest she spill food on her very first school uniform. Kulwinder’s own roti was dipped in achar; a mango pickle that stained her fingers and left a lingering smell on her hands. She offered the achar to Maya whose nose crinkled at the sourness. After eating, Kulwinder used the new soap to scrub both her and Maya’s hands – between fingers, under the nails, and especially in those fine palm lines that spelled out their futures. Scented like an English garden, the pair arrived at the primary school registration desk.
A young blonde woman introduced herself as Miss Teal and crouched so her gaze could meet Maya’s. ‘Good morning,’ she said with a smile, and Maya shyly smiled back. ‘Would you like to meet Miss Carney? She’s the other teacher here.’ Miss Carney walked over. ‘Look at those lovely eyes,’ she said.
Kulwinder relaxed her grip on Maya’s hand. These were kind people who would take care of her daughter. In the weeks leading up to this day, she had fretted over sending Maya to school. What if the other children teased Maya about her accent? What if somebody had to call Kulwinder about an emergency and she was unable to understand?
Miss Carney handed Kulwinder a folder of forms to fill out. Kulwinder drew a stack of forms from her bag. ‘The same,’ she explained.
Sarab had filled them in the night before. His command of English was better than hers but it had still taken a long time. Watching him point to each word as he read, Kulwinder felt the smallness of being in this new country, learning the alphabet like children. ‘Soon Maya will be translating everything for us,’ Sarab had remarked. Kulwinder wished he hadn’t said this. Children shouldn’t know more than their parents.
‘You’re very prepared,’ Miss Teal said. Kulwinder was pleased to have impressed the teacher. Miss Teal flipped through the forms and then stopped. ‘Now, over here, you forgot to write your home telephone number. Can you just tell me what it is?’
Kulwinder had memorized the digits in English so she could recite this combination of words whenever she was called to. ‘Eight nine six…’ She paused and grimaced. There was a tightness in her stomach. She started over. ‘Eight nine six five…’ She froze. The achar from that morning was bubbling in her chest.
‘Eight nine six eight nine six five?’ Miss Teal asked.
‘No.’ Kulwinder waved as if to wipe the woman’s memory clean. ‘Again.’ Her throat felt full and hot. ‘Eight nine six eight five five five five five five five.’ There were fewer fives than this but she became a broken record as her concentration moved towards suppressing the rising burp.
Miss Teal frowned. ‘There are too many numbers.’
‘Again,’ Kulwinder squeaked. She managed the first three digits before a fierce eruption rose from her throat, blaring a trumpet note across the registration table. The air smelled fetid and – at least to Kulwinder’s exaggerated recollection – filled with warty brown bubbles. When the air filled her lungs again, Kulwinder hastily rattled off the remaining digits. The teachers’ eyes bulged with suppressed laughter (This, she did not imagine).
‘Thank you,’ Miss Teal said. She wrinkled her nose and tipped her face slightly above Kulwinder’s. ‘That will be all.’
Mortified, Kulwinder hurried away from the women. She reached for Maya’s hand but then spotted her in the distance being pushed gently on the swings by a little girl wearing her curly red hair in pigtails.
A few years later, upon Kulwinder’s announcement that they would be moving to Southall, Maya protested. ‘What about all my friends?’ she wailed, meaning the red-haired girl, the blonde girl, the girl who wore overalls and cut her own hair (‘isn’t it just awful’ her mother said in that adoring way that made one word have two meanings). ‘You’ll make better friends in our new area,’ Kulwinder said. ‘They will be more like us.’
These days, Kulwinder took medication to control her gastric reflux condition. Her English had improved somewhat, although she did not need to use it in Southall. As the recently appointed Community Development Director of the Sikh Community Association, she had her own office space in the Recreation Centre. It was dusty and full of neglected files that she meant to throw out but they gave the room an air of officiousness, with labels such as BUILDING REGULATIONS and MEETING MINUTES – COPIES. Such appearances were important for the occasional visitor, like the President of the Sikh Community Association, Mr. Gurtaj Singh, who was standing in her office now, interrogating her about her flyers.
"Where did you post these?"
"On the temple noticeboard."
’"What sorts of classes are they?"
"Writing classes," Kulwinder replied. "For the women."
She reminded herself to be patient. During last week’s budget meeting, Gurtaj Singh had rejected her funding requests. "We have nothing in the budget for that," he said. It wasn’t like Kulwinder to put up a fight in the presence of so many respected Sikh men but Gurtaj Singh always took a certain pleasure in dismissing her. She had to remind Gurtaj Singh that the Sikh Community Association Centre was within temple property and a lie here bore the same weight as a lie in the temple. For that matter, both their heads were covered by turban and dupatta respectively, signifying God’s hallowed presence.
Gurtaj Singh had to relent. He slashed his pen across his written notes and muttered some figures and it occurred to Kulwinder that finding money for women was not so difficult in the first place. Yet here he was asking questions as if this was the first he ever heard of it. He hadn’t expected her to go out right away and begin advertising for instructors. Kulwinder presented a flyer. Gurtaj took time putting on his bifocals and clearing his throat. Between lines, he gave Kulwinder a sideways glance that made him resemble a crook in an old Hindi movie.
"Do you have any instructors?"
"I’m interviewing someone. She’ll be here soon," Kulwinder said.
A girl named Nikki had called yesterday. She was supposed to have arrived fifteen minutes ago. If Kulwinder had other applicants, she wouldn’t be worried but after a week of the flyer being posted, this Nikki had been the only one to respond. Gurtaj assessed the flyer again. Kulwinder hoped he wouldn’t ask her what all of the words meant. She had copied this flyer from another one she saw pinned up at a recreation centre off Queen Mary Road. The flyer had looked professional, so she had taken it down, added a note below and brought it to the photocopying shop where Munna Kaur’s son worked.
"Make me a few of these," she instructed the pimply boy. She thought to ask him to translate some words she didn’t understand but if he was anything like that calculating Munna, he would not do a favour for free. Besides, the point was not to be accurate; she just wanted to get the class – any class - running immediately.
"Are there any interested students?" Gurtaj Singh asked.
"Yes," Kulwinder said. She had gone around personally informing women of these classes, telling them that they were twice a week and free, and therefore their attendance was expected. Her main targets: elderly widows who could use a more worthwhile pastime than gossiping in the langar hall.
Gurtaj Singh replaced the flyer on her desk. He was a short man who wore his khaki pants high on his waist as if altering their hems would be conceding to his lack of height. "Kulwinder, everybody feels bad about what happened to Maya," he said.
Kulwinder felt a stab that took her breath away. She recovered quickly and fixed Gurtaj Singh with a stare. "I appreciate it," she said. "But this has nothing to do with my daughter. The women in this community want to learn and as the only woman on the board, I should be representing them." She began stacking the papers on her desk. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I have a very busy afternoon planned.’
Gurtaj Singh picked up the hint and left. His office, like the offices of the other men on the Board, was in the newly-renovated wing of the temple. It had hardwood floors and wide windows which looked out onto the gardens of surrounding homes. Kulwinder was the only Board member who worked in this old two story building, and as she listened to Gurtaj Singh’s fading footsteps, she wondered why men needed all that space when their answers to everything were always "no."
A draft passed through the cracked window and blew Kulwinder’s papers askew. She pressed her hands to her tea cup. The warmth radiated in her palms. Kulwinder maintained her grip. The burn burrowed through her layers of skin. Maya. ‘
"Sorry I’m late."
Kulwinder dropped her cup on the desk. A thick stream of spilled chai ran across the table and soaked her papers. In the doorway stood a young woman. "You said two p.m.," Kulwinder said as she rescued the papers.
"I meant to get here on time but there was a train delay."
She retrieved a serviette from her bag and helped Kulwinder to blot the tea from the papers. Kulwinder stepped back and observed. Although she did not have a son, habit prompted a quick assessment of this girl for her suitability as a wife. Nikki had shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a wide forehead. Her beaky face was striking in its own way but she certainly could not afford to forgo wearing make-up like this. Her nails were bitten down, a disgusting habit, and hanging off her waist was a square bag that clearly belonged to a postal worker.
Nikki caught her looking. Kulwinder cleared her throat imperiously and began shuffling and stacking the dry papers on the other end of her desk. She expected Nikki to watch her. Instead she noticed the girl throwing a disdainful look at the crowded shelves and the cracked window.
"Do you have your resume?" Kulwinder asked.
Nikki produced a sheet from her postal worker bag. Kulwinder skimmed it. She could not afford to be fussy – at this point as long as the instructor was literate in English, she would be hired. But the sting of the girl’s look lingered, and made Kulwinder feel less generous.
"What teaching experience do you have?"
"I’ll admit, I don’t have much teaching experience but I’m really interested in -."
"Have you ever taught?"
"Why do you want to teach this class then?"
"I have a passion for helping women," Nikki said.
"Hmm," Kulwinder acknowledged coolly.
On the resume, the longest list was under a header called Activism. Greenpeace Petitioner, Women’s Aid Volunteer, Fem Fighters Volunteer. Kulwinder did not know what all of it meant, but the last title – UK Fem Fighters – was familiar. A magnet bearing the same title had found its way into her home, courtesy of Maya. Kulwinder was vaguely aware that it had to do with the rights of women.
Just my luck, she thought.
It was one thing to battle for funding against the likes of Gurtaj Singh behind closed doors but these British-born-Indian girls who hollered publicly about women’s rights were such a self-indulgent lot. Didn’t they realise that they were only looking for trouble with that crass and demanding attitude? She felt a flash of anger at Maya, followed by a bewildering grief that momentarily shut out her senses. When she snapped back to reality, Nikki was still talking.
"…and it’s my belief that everyone has a story to tell. It would be such a rewarding experience to help Punjabi women to craft their stories and compile them into a book."
Kulwinder must have been nodding the girl along because now her rambling made little sense. "You want to write a book?" she asked cautiously.
"The women’s stories will form a collection," Nikki said. "I don’t have much experience in the arts but I do like to write and I’m an avid reader. I think I’d be able to help them cultivate their creativity. I’ll have some hand in guiding the process, of course, and then perhaps do some editorial work as well."
It dawned on Kulwinder that she had advertised for something she did not understand. She took another look at the flyer. Anthology, narrative techniques. Whatever these words meant, Nikki seemed to be counting on them. Kulwinder rustled through her drawer and took out a receipt of confirmed registrations. Scanning the list of names, Kulwinder thought she should warn Nikki. She looked up. "The students will not be very advanced writers," she said.
"Of course," Nikki assured. "That’s understandable. I’ll be there to help them."
Her patronising tone dissolved Kulwinder’s sympathies. This girl was a child. She smiled but her eyes had a squinting quality, as if she was sizing up Kulwinder and her importance here. But was there a chance that a more traditional woman – not this haughty girl who might as well be a gori with her jeans and her halting Punjabi - would walk in and ask for the job? It was unlikely. Never mind what Nikki expected to teach. The class had to start right away, or else Gurtaj Singh would strike it off his register and with it any future opportunity for Kulwinder to have a say in women’s matters.
"The classes start on Thursday."
"Thursday evening, yes," Kulwinder said.
"Sure," Nikki said. "What time do the classes start?"
"Whatever time works best for you," Kulwinder chirped in the crispest English she could manage, and when Nikki cocked her head in surprise, Kulwinder pretended not to notice.