A ROCKY HOMECOMING
Balli Kaur Jaswal’s new novel is fun but not half the riot her last one was
WWith her lively previous novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, released two years ago, Singaporean author Balli Kaur Jaswal had a winner on her hands. Through the frothy London-set story about a group of Punjabi widows and their erotic storytelling club, Jaswal made a strong comment on patriarchy, dark domestic truths and the clash between tradition and modernity.
It is a similar theme that informs her new novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters. Though the setting is new, the book lacks the spark of the previous novel. We meet siblings Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina as the trio grudgingly embarks on a pilgrimage from London and Australia to north India, to fulfil their mother’s dying wish. The wish comes with a detailed itinerary on what the sisters need to accomplish in Delhi, Amritsar and beyond, including tasks such as watching the sunrise at India Gate, doing seva at the Golden Temple, and trekking to Hemkund Sahib to scatter her ashes in the lake.
The journey is, as expected, quite rocky. The sisters, who do not exactly get along, are forced to leave their domestic and professional troubles back home and land in sultry Delhi to uncover family secrets from the past and contend with the enormity of present-day dilemmas.
Jaswal has an easy style and trains a keen eye on the Punjabi community, which makes the book eminently readable. The travelling narrative, a rich canvas as it is, allows the women to wander but not get lost, drift away and then come together, and piece together bits of their mother’s life they knew little about, all in a country that is “not exactly the friendliest environment for female travellers”. The fun is in the friction and the comedy between the London-bred sisters as they navigate India and their own muddled lives.
Jaswal fleshes out their individual strands well, letting us into their disparate stories— motherly Rajni’s troubles with her soon-to-be married son whose life she can no longer control, rebellious Jezmeen’s brush with social media fame and a professional identity crisis, and Shirina’s hushed-up domestic life and complicated marriage. The trouble is, if you’ve read Jaswal before, some of the novel’s major reveals appear decidedly predictable, though socially relevant. But there are other loose ends to deal with, and as the sisters get their act together, Jaswal ties them up nicely. ■
THE UNLIKELY ADVENTURES OF THE SHERGILL SISTERS Balli Kaur Jaswal HARPERCOLLINS `499; 320 pages