Reading this just after finishing Honour caused a bit of whiplash. Balli Kaur Jaswal deals with similar themes of immigration, religious and cultural traditions, and gender roles, but the feel of this story is earthier and more empowering. It’s hard not to love a novel that explores the smoldering sexuality lurking inside every woman—no matter their age or life situation.
As the daughter of immigrants, Nikki feels even more cross-cultural pressure between her British and Indian identities when she drops out of university, where she is studying medicine, to work in a pub and try to figure out what she really wants to do with her life. Up until that moment, her father has been her loyal supporter, but he has trouble accepting her decision to leave school. When he dies of a heart attack while on a trip home to India, Nikki is devastated both because they never got to reconcile and because she worries that she was somehow to blame. Still, she continues to embrace Western culture by living on her own and scoffing at her sister’s desire to have an arranged marriage.
However, it is when Nikki goes to post her sister’s “personal ad” on the marriage board at the local community center in Southall, a largely Punjabi immigrant community, that she sees the ad for a writing class that needs a teacher. Nikki doesn’t have any teaching experience, but she does like to write, and she likes the idea of helping Punjabi women find their voices. However, when the women show up on the first day, Nikki realizes that the class is not what she expected. Some of the women don’t have literacy skills in Punjabi, most of them can’t write much in English, and all of them are widows. At first, Nikki has no idea what to do but when a book of erotica that Nikki has bought for her sister as a joke gets mixed up in a pile of textbooks, the class takes an interesting turn. The women begin to tell erotic stories of their own while one of the younger widows, who can write in English, copies them down.
To find out what happens next, you’ll need to read the book, but the results are charming. It’s not all light-hearted stuff—there’s the suicide of a young bride and the growing threat from a group of more conservative young men, who have become a sort of “morality” police. However, the power these women find in expressing their fantasies and how that bleeds over into their everyday life is as inspiring and engaging as you might expect.