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Book Reviews

Updated on: Thursday, May 30, 2019, 07:01 AM IST

Exploring Gender, Sexuality and Identity: Diasporic Contexts

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
By Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published: 2017
ISBN No: 978-0-00-820988-9
Pages: 308
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers

Visa Wives: Emigration Experiences of Indian Women in the U.S.
By Radhika M.B.
Published 2016
ISBN No: 978-8-184-00786-2
Pages: 333
Publisher: Penguin Random House India

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows explores the lives of immigrant Punjabi community of Southhall, London in the most unique way. Stories within the story take us through the fascinating journey of Punjabi women migrants. The protagonist, Nikki is an independent woman, law school dropout, a rebel, caught between the traditional values of her Punjabi home and her more natural inclination to adhere to her version of a modern feminist agenda. She chooses to live independently at a rental small apartment above a pub where she works as a bartender. While unsure about her future, she is dismissive and opposed to her sister’s idea of securing life through an arranged marriage. Much against her feminist principles and wishes, she goes to a Southall temple to post a flyer about her sister, Mindi, who is looking for a suitable match.

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There, Nikki spots a job advertisement for a tutor to teach creative writing, she thinks it a suitable option for earning a little more to contribute to her family living in financial restraints after the death of her father. Much to her surprize, the class comprises primarily Punjabi widows, lonely, lost, isolated and mostly illiterate, (thus there is no way she cant do creative writing!). Moreover the women are not ready to be taught writing with resources aimed at young children. Instead, they are interested in engaging in oral storytelling, but of the type that is traditionally frowned upon in the community and challenges the role of women. They want to connect with and express their sexuality through the telling of erotic tales and fantasies! They probably find it easy to open up to Nikki as they think of her as a “modern” woman, casual about issues of sexual encounters and thus they feel safe about not being judged.

The rest of the novel reveals the unique relationship that develops between Nikki and “her students” as they negotiate with their freedom and sexuality in a racist and patriarchal society. The dispersed erotic stories add wit, humour and warmth to the narrative. The women find the courage to express their sexuality, become more decisive and independent. They support one another and Nikki finds a new identity for herself within the community that brings her closer to her family and her lover. The sub plots of the suicide of a young, Punjabi bride, the hardliners Punjabi men, ‘The Brothers’ who have set themselves up to police the morality and honour of community women (to ensure they stick to traditional expectations) and Nikki’s domestic and romantic relationship seem shallow and fails to further contextualize the main narrative but the novel is worth a read for breaking several stereotypes.

Books like Visa Wives: Emigration Experiences of Indian Women in US offer “soul curry for sanity”; practical advices for women who are reduced to caretakers and dependents. The book addresses complexities of the status of women who emigrate to the US on dependent visas , to join their husbands working on H1B visas. Often ignorant and unsure about the new life, the book claims to give voice to those experiences through personal narratives. The themes of loss of identity, complete dependence, lack of confidence, forced unemployment, a nightmare of the inability to contribute to society in spite of advanced knowledge and skills, frustration and helplessness are some of themes addressed. The book also engages with complexities like the anxiety of leaving the homeland, embracing the alien land and its culture and strained marriages. It offers advice on settling in with domestic roles, adjustments with an unfamiliar style of home, kitchen, shopping for groceries, navigating around the city, raising children and managing domestic turmoil. It also suggests ways of working, networking, assimilating and making friends through personal narrations. Interestingly it also highlights how the migration laws are gender biased and how cultural stereotypes play a role in “adjustment issues”. Yet, the book is preachy and almost serves as a guide manual to positive thinking and assimilating into situations. It does not aim to break any of the patriarchal stereotypes, it treats it as a matter of fact and offers to provide practical solutions to integrate within the setting. It does not break the stereotype of the gendered roles that migration brings in, instead it provides ways to adapt to the same in way as easy as possible. The book retains universal images such as cooking, as a metaphor for the experience, and retains the perceived feminine task of collecting, remembering and documenting memory and images of the past in the stereotypical way.

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In contrast, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows subverts the use of such imagery and the feminine tasks by the introducing its relation to the libidinal energies and its power relations. The book makes an interesting read as it challenges several patriarchal stereotypes, (primarily the story tellers being the most silenced and marginalized migrant women; the illiterate widows) in an innovative way. It addresses the problem that while the choice of moving from one physical location to another is primarily seen to be a male one, the onus of retaining memories of home, of recreating them within new contexts and ultimately acting as cultural harbingers of homeland culture, remain vividly feminine. The challenges inherent within this contradictory situation is central to the discourse of the text as the women characters in the novel perform the problematics of gendered roles in the most innovative way; through their expression of their erotic desires (against all odds). Applying Sandhya Rao Mehta’s thesis explored in her book Exploring Gender in the Literature of Indian Diaspora, gender here is negotiated within the political and public sphere by questioning established narratives and accepted social conventions within the nation and in the diaspora. It also identifying ways in which women affect transformation within their social contexts and create agencies within diasporic spaces.

The process of exploring queer spaces is also investigated through characters ((through elderly woman Tanveer’s story) for whom matters of feminization remain significant markers of selfhood. Gender is found and performed in everyday situations of cooking and clothing, conventional chores associated with women, who then transform such tropes to align them with continuing identity formations. The book speaks to the ways in which gender is explored, lost, created and re-created within imaginary spaces which allow for exploration of sexualities. In catering to popular imaginations, the book may sometimes seem to fall short of making such profound impact, yet it is an interesting read as it offers the possibility for exploring the same.

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Published on: Sunday, May 07, 2017, 04:11 AM IST
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