Sex And Sanctity: How Balli Kaur Jaswal Explores Female Desire
October 15, 2019
“Why did Mindi want an arranged marriage?” The opening sentence of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is a familiar family war cry in the disbelieving, openly judgmental tones of Nikki, a younger sibling, firmly convinced of her own advanced coolness as compared to older sister Mindi, who, quite literally, puts her quest for a husband up on a bulletin board. This is the first of the tension of opposites that drives Jaswal’s third, and perhaps best-known, novel, at once a love letter to female desire and the shackles surrounding it, and a personal treatise on the constant battle between tradition and modernity faced by a diasporic community, a battle that often has ominous and ugly consequences. Set in Southall, known as London’s Little India, the story revolves almost exclusively around the women of the area’s Punjabi community – women who continue to be defined by the all-encompassing institution of marriage, or the lack of it.
There’s outspoken Nikki, who works as a bartender, lives away from home and is a sneaky smoker – because cigarettes and good girls don’t mix. Off-setting her are the women who walk into her life when she signs up to teach a writing class. There’s Kulwinder with grief coiled tightly inside her, as she holds on desperately to her daughter’s mysterious death, unable to move on or reach out to her husband. Tarampal, who was married off at the age of 10 to a pundit and secretly breaks the moral code she claims to so rigidly uphold. Arvinder, who makes no bones of her enjoyment of sexual pleasures, much to the embarrassment of her dramatic daughter Preetam. Other than the muted colours of widowhood, these women share the stigma of being in a country where they do not speak the language. Nor do they have any particular affection for it. As Tarampal declares, “Tell me, why haven’t I picked up English? Because of the English.”
Many of the women Jaswal writes about in her book have grown up with very little formal education. For them, the class is a way to learn English, to blend in better in a land where they are still perceived as outsiders and to speak and live with dignity. Slowly, though, it becomes less about literacy and language, and evolves into a safe space for shared secrets, for stories of pleasure and pain. And soon, the lines between fiction and fact are blurred as the widows come out with gorgeously lurid, luscious details of desire, given, indulged and denied, of bodies and beauty spots that rendered them undesirable, of fantasies they could never speak of. The classroom turns into a big, tender, bawdy bowl of girl soup – the only place where they can give free rein to their minds, hearts, and imagination. Here, they can talk and write about the power play and control that govern their lives at every step. This is a space where they are unabashedly visible and can be heard. Where their deepest, most authentic selves are on display, and language is no barrier to voicing what they want.
This, perhaps, is my favourite part of Jaswal’s writing – she effortlessly manages to knock erotica off a long-standing pedestal governed almost exclusively by male pleasure, while also bringing it out of the metaphorical gutter of ‘guilty pleasure’ and holding it up to the light. These women, having lost their husbands, are expected to have shut off all thoughts of sexual pleasure. Some of them are past the mythical age when women can or should care about their bodies and needs. And most of them can barely sign their own names. But stories come from roots deeper than literacy. As the women giggled and screamed with laughter, comparing male genitalia to skinny carrots, bananas and dandas, as they confessed to using neck massagers for stimulation and ghee for lubrication, as they spoke of ‘separating the idiots from the bloody idiots’, I was reminded that desire and pleasure, albeit unique in context, are common to all bodies and all languages. And for the marginalised, it is still a struggle to own up to these feelings.
For all the ribald merriment they share, there is always an edge of fear and secrecy. These women know the consequences if they are found out. Literate or not, they have deep wells of knowledge that women’s pleasure, women’s spaces, women’s needs must be cloistered at all times. The realm of emotion and palpable pleasure, traditionally seen as feminine and therefore frivolous, must be kept secret and in control.
Documenting these secret, tumultuous inner lives that women are often forced to cover up is a common thread running through Jaswal’s writing. Her fourth novel, following Erotic Stories is titled The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters. If Erotic Stories is about sacred spaces for women, Shergill Sisters explores the spiky and fraught relationship between three sisters. Living seemingly idyllic lives in the United Kingdom and Australia, they undertake a journey through Delhi and Punjab, fulfilling their late mother’s final wishes. As they face their past and present demons, the façade of control they have over their lives starts to crack. There’s Rajni, struggling with her son’s intimate relationship with a much older woman; Jezmeen, forever fighting for visibility, but terrified of over-exposure; Shirina, hiding a dark tale of emotional abuse and torture behind her seemingly perfect wedded life. Their journey is as much internal as physical, as they traverse the length and breadth of relationships bound by both blood and law, battle past demons and disturbingly subtle abuse, bringing to life sisterhood with all its wonderful, love-hate nuances.
Painting a gritty yet colourful picture, Jaswal brings out the constant tightrope women walk between their authentic selves and the image they are required to present, especially as people caught between the traditions of a ‘native land’ they know little about and the pressures of a country where they have lived all their lives, but where they are still outsiders. The concepts of home, of a single, beloved, intimate language, of belonging, remain in an uncomfortable limbo. And, that is why, in each of these novels, Jaswal’s characters attempt to find a physical and moral space where they can feel at home. In Erotic Stories, it’s a classroom, in Shergill Sisters, it’s a journey across India. Away from husbands, expectations, and traditional roles, the women here end up surprising themselves.
I also found it wonderfully apt that places of worship play a major role in both novels, as though the author is drawing parallels between spaces built to honour divinity, and secret spots that are sacred to women and their stories. In Erotic Stories, the writing class takes place within the premises of the local gurdwara, while in Shergill Sisters, the Golden Temple is a visceral part of the sisters’ journey- a setting for conflict, resolution and reawakening of faith. Although Jaswal never writes explicitly of the ‘divine feminine’, its power resonates through her characters’ voices.
Lurking just beneath Jaswal’s breezy prose, though, is an enduring darkness. The Greek word ‘diaspora’ is defined as ‘a dispersion or scattering’, and Jaswal’s characters embody this constant conflict. As families and ideologies shapeshift, Jaswal’s characters draw closer to tradition and superstition, and often go several violent steps too far, to the point of bride burning and female foeticide. The violent silencing of women, emphasises Jaswal, can be countered and healed only when there is room for women to speak up. Where women’s voices and issues are so often dismissed, Jaswal underlines that it is only in each other’s stories and in sharing them that her characters find peace and sometimes penance.
Like desire, like our bodies, feminism comes in all shapes and sizes and the women in Jaswal’s novels recognise this. Acknowledging that fighting outright against what they consider an impregnable patriarchal fortress is dangerous, they create their own havens, making room for all kinds of women to exist, albeit often reluctantly. Jaswal’s women are young, old, traditional, modern, believe in love, want an arranged marriage, were child brides, and took on younger lovers in their 40s. Their co-existence is rarely peaceful, but it is necessary to create a world where, in Jaswal’s own words, ‘Girls begin to desire too much’
In an interview with Literary Hub earlier this year, Jaswal spoke of creating a ‘strong inner world’ due to having moved around so much as a child. This inner strength, this space within is what she gifts her characters, and what they nurture against all odds For when you are deemed a perpetual outsider, what’s on the inside is truly what counts.
Having worked in journalism and digital content, Tia writes and edits for a living, and reads to live. She believes in the power of storytelling, cupcakes and a good bottle of rosé.
Read her articles here.