Parents and grandparents don’t entertain desires of the ‘carnal’ kind… or so we’d like to imagine. Perhaps we could warm up to grandfathers telling mischievous tales of debauchery in their youth (because boys will be boys), but sweet, coy dadijis? Not so much.
Cut to a room full of widows, proclaiming their most intimate fantasies, narrating tales of their wedding night or simply telling sensual stories they’ve fashioned from their imagination. This is the premise of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows.
Nikki, a 20-something Punjabi girl brought up in England, is caught in a tussle between her “traditional” family and her own “modern” outlook. But when she begins teaching an English class at the local gurudwara in London’s Southall, the seemingly “traditional” women she meets take her by surprise.
They hijack the class to tell erotic stories and the tales they narrate could plunge the men in their community into cardiac arrest. These tales might even put the women in danger if the ‘Brothers’ – the local moral police – caught whiff of what was going on.
Jaswal accords the women in her book with agency to mould their own stories – a departure from the rest in the larger genre of erotica, where even female desire is fetishised for the pleasure of the male gaze.
Sunny Leone’s Tryst With Literary Porn
Breaking news! Women enjoy sex as much as men (though patriarchy has convinced us otherwise for centuries). But when women wish to consume pornography or erotica, they often return disheartened. It’s almost as if sex itself was made by men and only for men.
Bollywood actress and former porn-star Sunny Leone’s tryst with literary porn Sweet Dreams, for instance, did precious little to relate to a female audience.
Lines in one of her short stories, Seat 7E, suggested that the female protagonist wanted to be ‘used animalistically’ and to be the man’s ‘prey’. In yet another story, New Year’s Eve, a ‘dumpy’ and ‘overweight’ woman vengefully loses weight after a man she considers attractive calls her ‘fat’.
Now, Leone never claimed her stab at erotica was going to be feminist. But for someone who has unabashedly owned her status as a powerful adult entertainment star, one would expect Leone to write erotica, which is more nuanced than just titillation.
Besides, in a genre where female authors are conspicuously absent – more so in India – one can’t be blamed for having expectations from a woman.
Wait, ‘Savita Bhabhi’ Isn’t Far Behind
Apart from Leone, other options for a young woman in India looking for porn may include the country’s first porn comic strip, Savita Bhabhi. The comic was deemed “the face of new India’s ultra-liberal section”, given how this promiscuous ‘bhabhi’ or sister-in-law, manoeuvred through her sex life within the confines of a conservative north Indian society.
But the comic seems to have employed the ‘desperate housewife’ trope, the male fetish to be intimate with older women, and the playfully sexual undertones of the relation between a ‘bhabhi’ and her ‘devar’ (brother-in-law).
While it’s commendable that Savita is never apologetic for her promiscuity, in the end, she panders to a typical, young, adolescent male fantasy.
‘Erotic Stories’ Is a Giant Leap Forward
For the women in Jaswal’s novel to know what they want and not be afraid to ask (even if it’s through the characters in their erotic stories), is a huge leap forward.
The women in Jaswal’s novel narrate erotica. Their characters are contemporaries, in a way, to ‘Savita Bhabhi’ and the women in Leone’s short stories. But there’s a difference. They aren’t ‘hot bhabhis’, ‘sexy nurses’ or caricatures of other kind, but have real motivations and desires.
In one of the stories, the protagonist, Sunita, attempts to pick a husband by spiralling into daydreams about their sexual compatibility. Sitting amidst her family and the boys, she descends into a private reverie and eventually rejects the alliance.
Later, she fantasises about her neighbour – a professor she imagines knows his way around a woman’s body. Unlike the typical Indian woman we’ve been presented with, Sunita has no interest in being shortchanged. Or settling for less.
Then just as one begins to dismiss the stories for suggesting only men can provide women with pleasure, a tale of two women emerges.
Sisters-in-law Meera and Rita start off on the wrong foot with the older bahu Meera envying Rita. But their relationship quickly transforms into a sexual one – not unlike Deepa Mehta’s controversial 1996 film ‘Fire’.
In class, when some of the women suggest that Meera and Rita were practising with each other to become more skilled for their husbands, Arvinder, one of the oldest women in the group, quickly retorts:
“We don’t have to have men in all our stories.”
For Women, Sex Has No Reference Point
In a general vacuum of female erotica, women don’t have a reference point for sex. As Naomi Wolf, feminist writer and author of The Beauty Myth says, every woman learns how to feel sexual on her own, “though she learns constantly how to look sexual”.
In Jaswal’s novel, the widows narrate how their knowledge of sex came only from female relatives who passed on their wisdom before their wedding night.
Women are taught not to think sexually. This is a nuanced point which comes across in Jaswal’s novel, where language is shown to be devoid of words for male and female sexual organs – phallic vegetables represent a penis and a ‘flower’ for a vagina.
‘Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows’ lends repressed Sikh widows a voice within the walls of the gurudwara they deem their sacrosanct communal space. The gender segregation in the Sikh temple becomes a privilege, where the women enjoy the privacy of exchanging intimate details, without the iron-hand of the men in their community.
The comical convergence of “traditional” and the “modern” develops into a thoughtful sisterhood that looks out for one another.
While the women’s overtures in the stories told in Jaswal’s novel are within the oppressive realm of their circumstances, their small victories and perhaps a covert conflict they trigger, deserve to be celebrated.
(Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – Balli Kaur Jaswal, HarperCollins, 309 Pages)