Balli Kaur Jaswal’s new novel is fun but not half the riot her last one was

India Today - - LEISURE - —Neha Bhatt

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. ■


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