The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters

In The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal, a dying mother’s request to have her ashes scattered in India leads three estranged sisters on their unlikely adventures across their mother’s homeland. Rajni, Jezmeen and Shrina are British-born Punjabi sisters who do not get along and have virtually no communication with each other. Rajni, the archetypal older sister is a control freak at work and home; Jezmeen is the middle sister always vying for attention and is a self-destructive celebrity wannabe; and Shrina, the youngest is conflict averse and people pleasing, which means she is controlled by her mean mother-in-law and husband in her traditional arranged marriage. If this trip sounds like a nightmare in the making, it is. None of them want to go, but they feel obligated to honor their mother as she has requested with the sisters taking a spiritual pilgrimage to some of the Sikhs most important sites and scattering her ashes as well.

The novel is a dark comedy with a good ending. It is a bit of the Keystone cops, especially in scenes where Jezmeen is not with her sisters. Trouble follows her around like her shadow. The underpinnings of this story is the Indian culture, specifically the violence towards women, the rape culture, and the shame-based/honor-based element of their society. Jaswel makes no attempt to white-wash the misogynistic patriarchal worldview of India that causes gender inequality and violence. The rape culture is rooted in Indian culture which was made evident to the world in 2012 when a female student was gang-raped to death on a public bus. This incident caused outrage in India and around the world. Rape is the 4th most common crime against women in India and most go unreported. Women are advised not to travel alone, not to go out at night and to dress very modestly- both citizens and tourists. These facts are woven into Jaswel’s story line. The author is a self-described social justice advocate who uses literature to highlight injustices. And she does it very well.

Sita, the mother is a practicing Sikh, and I learned a great deal about the religion while reading this novel. It is the major religion in Punjab, India and is based on the sacred writings of Guru Granth Sahib which stresses faith, unity, selfless service, equality, and meditation on the one creator. Sita has requested her daughters to fully experience all the components of Sikhism. This becomes a little difficult because the sisters are all hiding some secrets from each other. The reader learns the extent of the secrets as the sisters do, all the while trying to get along, honor their mother, and participate in the rites of the religion, hence the dark comedy description. And you have to laugh in spite of yourself.

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