At first glance, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s fourth novel, appears to be radically different from Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – the book that brought global acclaim for the Singaporean novelist.
Published in 2017, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows explores the hidden intimacies and unspoken desires of a group of Sikh widows in South Hall, London. The novel examines the complex terrain of traditions that keep women in check and the familiar warzones that chastise them for being human. Through its subtle and significant meditations on racism, violence against women and the perils of patriarchy, this book cemented Jaswal’s reputation as a born storyteller.
In her latest offering, Jaswal is still swayed by the themes that were tackled in Erotic Stories and uses a similar motif to tell an entirely different story.
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters begins with Sita Kaur Shergill, a cancer patient with a slim chance at survival who has been admitted at a hospital in England, writing a letter to her three daughters – Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina. Through this missive, she instructs them to go on pilgrimage to India to perform her last rites. Months after the Shergill matriarch’s demise, Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina pluck themselves away from their disparate lives and travel to India to fulfil their mother’s final wish.
Their willingness to embark on the journey is initially driven by a vague sense of duty. But as the date for the departure draws close, the trip to India comes as a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to flee the complexities of their separate worlds.
Rajni, Sita’s oldest daughter, discovers that her eighteen-year-old son Anil is dating a woman who is twice his age and is pregnant with his child. Overwhelmed with a mix of suspicion and fear, she urges Anil to be wary of the older woman’s intentions. In time, she finds herself cold-shouldered for vehemently opposing her son’s choices. When she boards the plane to India, Rajni is tormented with doubts about the future and is possessed with the burning desire to protect her naïve son.
Jezmeen, Sita’s middle-child, faces a new set of obstacles in kicking off her acting career when an embarrassing video of her goes viral. The pilgrimage comes at a suitable time for Jezmeen, offering an interlude from circumstances that are beyond her control. For Shirina, Sita’s youngest daughter who has had an arranged marriage and settled in Australia, the trip to India provides an opportunity to physically, if not emotionally, distance herself from the dark, distressing realities that threaten to obliterate her.
Fuelled by the desire to escape the humdrum of their lives, Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina begin their pilgrimage through India with a firm resolve to follow their mother’s fixed itinerary. But their journey is filled with surprises and peculiar occurrences that push Sita’s daughters to revisit the past and calibrate their allegiances to one another. As they quarrel, laugh, share secrets and pull each other out of tricky situations, they develop a fresh affinity that is flawed yet potent. Their voyage through cities and challenging circumstances helps them heal the invisible wounds of the past, address the challenges that afflict them in the present, and cultivate a bond that safeguards them from a bleak future.
In a novel that explores how a death moulds us in unpredictable ways, Jaswal maintains a fine balance between humour and despair. The author zooms in on the absurd, tragic and funny moments in the story without making them seem unrealistic or compromising on the subtle nuances. In addition, the characters seldom come across as superficial or boring. The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters doesn’t shy away from depicting the terror and solace that defines the motivations of its characters. Rajni’s infuriating obsession with rituals, Jezmeen’s proclivity for recklessness, and Shirina’s silences and insecurities are portrayed in a poignant and humane way.
Jaswal’s writing is precise, compelling and unadorned. She doesn’t rely on long passages that volunteer explanations or describe aspects of the story that ought to be shown rather than told. In a plot-driven novel likeThe Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, dialogue helps characters have their say without their voices being subdued by an overarching narrative voice. The author succeeds in keeping the narrative voice at bay when it isn’t required, allowing the characters the space to dance off the page and come to life.
Jaswal’s new novel is replete with chilling insights about the perils that women encounter when they travel in safe countries like India. But the Shergill sisters aren’t portrayed as anxious travellers who are daunted by the country’s unusual security dynamics. They negotiate public spaces with caution and an instinct for self-preservation, but their assessment of the dangers that lurks in the streets of Delhi or Chandigarh isn’t filtered through a foreigner’s lens. Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina are willing to take calculated risks as they forge their way through these unfamiliar spaces. Their pilgrimage is stirred by verve and courage, not a palpable fear of the unknown. The author manages to represent this through bold and sensible protagonists who consistently prove that they don’t need men to protect them from real or perceived threats.
Written with vigour and warmth, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters tells a memorable story without ignoring the finer points of storytelling.
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters
Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal