4 min read.Updated: 06 Jul 2019, 03:45 PM ISTKavitha Rao
Balli Kaur Jaswal’s new novel may sound like a fluffy summer romance but it’s no easy chick lit’
The plot outlines the adventures of three British-born Sikh sisters who embark on a trip to India after their mother’s death
Picture this: You are a Singaporean author of Sikh origin writing about the clashes between your traditional community and the modern world. Your third book, The Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, uncovers the secrets and lies of Punjabi widows in Southall, UK. Then, one day, actor Reese Witherspoon picks up your book for her Hello Sunshine book club, the millennial version of former TV show host Oprah Winfrey’s influential book club. The rest is history. Film rights sold to Ridley Scott’s production company, translation rights for 11 languages, and glowing reviews from The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly. That’s Balli Kaur Jaswal for you in a nutshell.
Jaswal’s new book, The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters, sticks close to her favourite theme: the deep fissures within the Sikh community. The title hints at a fluffy summer romp, but this is no chick lit; it’s subversive black comedy. The road trip structure is deceptive; the novel delves deep into immigrant identity, women’s safety in India and sibling rivalry.
Who: Jaswal grew up travelling across the world with her diplomat father, living in Japan, Russia, the Philippines, UK and US. She taught in international schools for many years before the success of Erotic Stories motivated her into becoming a full-time writer.
But her novels mostly look inward, into the dark heart of the family. In Inheritance, her first novel, she explored the cloistered lives of Punjabi immigrants to Singapore in the 1970s-90s, as the nation came of age. In her second, Sugarbread, she focused on the racism faced by South Asians in seemingly cosmopolitan Singapore. In Erotic Stories, the heroine Nikki volunteers to teach creative writing to Punjabi widows in Southall. They discuss an erotic novel that Nikki brings to class, which leads to scandal and recrimination.
But Jaswal delivers her grim messages with wit and sparkle. For instance, in an Entertainment Weekly interview, where she was asked to write a movie poster tag line for Erotic Stories, she replied, “You will never look at root vegetables the same way again."
What:The Unlikely Adventures begins when bossy matriarch Sita Shergill, dying of cancer, summons her three British-born daughters to her bedside. She wants them to go on a road trip to India after she is dead. The daughters—Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina—are all very different from each other. They do not get along and bicker constantly, but they reluctantly agree to go. Meanwhile, each struggles with a secret challenge of her own.
Jaswal wanted to turn the traditional “finding yourself in India" novel, usually written by men, on its head. “Men have a lot more freedom of mobility in many places, while women always have to consider their safety when walking around alone, or going to an unfamiliar place. Travelling really amplifies these vulnerabilities. I wanted to explore how something as fundamental as gender can influence a travel experience so profoundly."
Jaswal says the endorsement from Witherspoon did not change her life as a writer much, but certainly broadened her readership. She believes it is a mark of progress that stories about small Indian communities are being read more widely. But the publishing industry is a cruel business. “The odds are stacked against emerging writers, and breaking into the literary business is very tough," she says.
Jaswal is breaking away from her usual setting in her next novel, which focuses on Filipina domestic workers in Singapore.
Why: Get this if you want a witty holiday read with grit. An unfortunate scene with a fish is contrived and over the top, but overall the road trip theme works. Jaswal is particularly skilled at describing Delhi; her outsider’s eye is perceptive. In one scene, Jezmeen walks through a Delhi filled with predatory men, “her head tipped up, as if she is keeping her head above water. Whenever Jezmeen did spot a woman, her face reflected the hardness that Jezmeen realised was in her own expression".
Jaswal is also hilarious when describing the passive aggressive ways of controlling South Asian elders. “Sita used to stand at the foot of the stairs and shout all three names—Rajni, Jezmeen, Shirina—even if she only wanted one to come down; she could always find something for the other two to do once they arrived." Also convincing is her portrayal of sibling rivalry; the tussles between the Shergill sisters over who will be the good girl and who the black sheep ring true.
Jaswal says she likes to write about women in the Indian diaspora rather than women growing up in India because “the contradictions are profound and really unexpected". Over and over, her books drive home the paradoxes of the diaspora: coerced arranged marriages, the obsession with having a male child, the panicky desire to preserve the tie with the motherland. At times, some of the older women seem almost cartoonishly evil. Shirina’s mother-in-law, for instance, is a tyrant who subtly torments her until she is reduced to a puppet.
Jaswal thinks the diaspora can often be stuck in a time warp. “It is true that some migrant families have preserved their traditional values, while attitudes have progressed in the home country. It comes from a fear of entering a new culture, and fear of losing their identities." That ever-present fear of being swamped drives her characters to do terrible things.
Unlike many other women writers, who complain that men don’t read novels about women, Jaswal says a surprising number of men have come to her book signings and contacted her over social media. “The most heartening messages are the ones from men who say that my novels made them aware of their privilege and consider how hard it was for their mothers and sisters to just exist in the world," she adds.
Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and author.