Nikki is a modern young Punjabi woman, who has spent most of her twenty-odd years distancing herself from her community and living an independent (read: western) life. But after the death of her father leaves her family in financial straits, she takes a job as a creative writing teacher for a group of aging widows at her temple and discovers that the white dupatta of the widow hides more than just a few greying hairs.
These are women who have lived in the shadows of fathers, brothers and husbands their whole lives, being dutiful, raising children and going to temple. They may not have a great grasp of English but what they do have is a wealth of stories and fantasies that they are no longer afraid to share with the other women in the group.
As Nikki realises that she must keep the illicit nature of the class secret from the Brothers—a group of highly conservative young men who have started policing the morals of the temple and the wider community—she starts to help these women voice their desires, and also begins to uncover the truth about the sudden recent death of a young Sikh woman.
Nikki doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. She quit her law degree and is now working in a pub. Looking for a way to earn a bit of money she takes a job to teach a storytelling class for widows at a temple in Southall.
At first, Nikki is dismissive of her students, expecting them to be dull and timid. She thinks that she can get them to tell stories that she can then create a book from – it felt almost as though she set out to exploit them.
She soon finds out that most of the women in the class don’t know how to read and write, and her job is actually to teach them. Not only that, her students were pushed into signing up and resent being taught as though they were children. They quickly hijack Nikki’s class, and turn it into the storytelling class it was meant to be, but with a twist. They want to tell erotic stories!
I found it hard to get into at first. A lot of characters are introduced, conversations wander, everything feels vague and the students are hard to tell apart from each other. Nikki feels bland and her personality doesn’t come across very strongly. Her class is quickly taken away from her and she is pushed around by her students and her work mates.
It settled down after the first 40% or so, and I found myself engrossed in the story. The students’ personalities start to emerge and I could see that they were a group of lively, smart women all with their own views on life. Their conversations were so funny! I loved reading their life stories.
The erotic stories are wonderful little gems dotted throughout the book. The widows say they can get away with telling them because they are forgotten and ignored by their community. No one pays them attention, they are expected to fade into the background.
Still, they have to keep what they are doing secret. A group of young men known as The Brother’s patrol the community watching the women to make sure they are behaving properly.
That brings in a darker theme to the book. Nikki’s boss at the temple Kulwinder starts to become suspicious of what they are doing in the class and they are in danger of being found out. And something has happened to Kulwinder’s daughter Maya that everyone keeps hinting at but no one will explain to Nikki.
At the end the pacing felt off again, everything happens in a rush. It’s all resolved very neatly, everything is tied up and ends happily. It’s positive and uplifting, but I don’t feel like it would actually happen. There’s a dark side to the book but the reality behind this feels pushed to one side in favour of a happy ending.
But at the same time, I do like that it ends positively. This is a warm and kindhearted book, I feel like Balli Kaur Jaswal really loves her characters and this shines through in her writing. The happy ending feels right for the book, and it certainly left me feeling happier!
I received a free copy from the publisher in return for an honest review.