Balli Kaur Jaswal on writing about the Punjabi Diaspora experience

With her fourth book out in India now, the Singaporean author says her work was never meant to drag down her community

Balli Kaur Jaswal is four novels old, and just like her itinerant childhood (her father worked for the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and she lived in countries like Russia and the Philippines), her books are also spread across the world. Her recently-released novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, sees three estranged British-Punjabi siblings embark unwillingly on a trip across northern India at the bidding of their now deceased mother. Before that, the author’s wildly popular Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (2017) — which was scooped up by Sir Ridley Scott’s production company for a cinematic adaptation — was set in London’s Southall neighbourhood.

Jaswal’s binding thread is the Punjabi Diaspora experience. “There’s this very false idea that people in the Diaspora are removed from India, and are therefore more progressive,” says the third generation Singaporean-Punjabi. “It’s not true in a lot of cases. In fact, a lot of their viewpoints are very crystallised and you find people in India have moved on.”

Starting with humble goals

But the 35-year-old author is clear that being a flagbearer for young Punjabi readers was never her intention. “I had very humble goals when I started writing,” she admits. “It was just ‘I want to say something about the world and the way I view it’.” And she is wary of being pigeon-holed as ‘the writer of Punjabi novels’. In fact, her next book, set in Singapore, will not have any major Indian characters but will instead focus on the lives of Filipino domestic workers in Singapore.

In Shergill Sisters, Jaswal’s characters often come to blows with less progressive family members. An uncle visiting from Punjab, for instance, questions his sister-in-law’s decision to take driving lessons from a man; a mother-in-law in Melbourne wants her son’s wife to quit work and take care of her. Topics like female infanticide and widowhood are interspersed with goof-ball moments, but the humour does not hide the fact that the author is critical of her community.

Balli Kaur Jaswal on writing about the Punjabi Diaspora experience

That level of scrutiny is bound to bring criticism and Jaswal admits that she has been accused of portraying Punjabis negatively. “It’s one or two men in particular, who consider themselves leaders in the community. I find it interesting that they do exactly what I criticise the community for doing — which is not addressing issues head on and trying to cover things up,” she says, before adding, “This idea that I am trying to drag down the Punjabi community — that’s a huge job for one person and it’s not what my books do at all.”

A voice for the times

On the flip side are the many readers who are grateful to Jaswal for creating literature that makes sense of their immigrant experience: millennials growing up in conservative families, tethered to their country of origin in complex ways. Jaswal is doing for diaspora literature today what Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri did for South Asian readers when they started out in the ’90s and early 2000s. Her own tenuous relationship to India — a country she had only visited once before returning for research in 2016 — improved when Diaspora culture (like Lahiri’s novels and the British sketch comedy show, Goodness Gracious Me) became mainstream. “It was about being Indian in another country and reconciling with that.”

It would be very easy to classify Shergill Sisters as chick lit. But it is more than that, painted as it is on the confusing canvas of the immigrant experience. That is what has won Jaswal so many readers across the world. In fact, she hints at the possibility of the book being adapted into a short series. “Still working out the details,” she laughs.

The book, published by HarperCollins, is priced at ₹399.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 2:27:15 PM |

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