Sugarbread: Balli Kaur Jaswal – Like Eating A Green Chilli
Reading ‘SUGARBREAD’ was like eating a whole, raw, green chilli. It was overwhelming, made me feel like I’d been punched in the gut and yet oddly satisfying after the tears.
I first read Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, having been hooked by that title. I loved it. Intrigued by Balli Kaur Jaswal’s work, I tried Inheritance next but I just couldn’t take to it. It felt too dark, claustraphobic and like it would swallow me whole. Maybe I just read it too soon after the first book. Balli Kaur Jaswal’s books are probably best read with prudence. Take a day or two between a few chapters. Back it up with more comforting, lighter reading. Just the way you’d learn to enjoy a green chilli, with patience and sandwiched between cooling flavours.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about an Indian author writing about Singapore, that too a Punjabi about a desi diaspora that’s mostly Tamilian. But Balli Kaur Jaswal really brings to life the culture she knows well – the underbelly of Punjabi Sikhism, the poisonous conventions beneath the glory, the stifling traditions hidden behind personal warmth. Her characters are nuanced & flawed but sympathetic in every beat. In this particular book, poverty, racism/casteism, patriarchy and low education grind everybody down. Yet there are moments of inspiration & hope that shine through.
SUGARBREAD presents a more accurate picture of childhood than most fiction does when it conjures up an ideal paradise of naivete. The children in this book, Pin as well as Jinn are curious, wary, brave, reckless, manipulative and more. They are human beings, just little ones. Sugarbread brings up the horrors of being a child in a world weighed down by discrimination, economic differences and adults who don’t cope with these but take it out on children instead.
Then there is the lovely game Balli plays with us with a title like SUGARBREAD. Whatever does it mean? It plays no great part in the plot but becomes that strange, mundane piece of hope that is the domain of children. And the searing taste of her words is bonus.
I like to imagine the politics of an author after reading their book. It’s a lot easier to do this in fiction than nonfiction since our inherent biases & traumas show through in the kind of situations & characters we create. It’s a lot harder to mask those inner shadows in the dim recesses of pure imagination as opposed to the hospital-bright light that nonfiction casts on facts (and political correctness). I’m glad to find a second book that echoes what I thought of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s beliefs. There is a melancholic assertion of independence, as wounded as it is defiant, an almost despondent sense that things will never be okay for girls/women but one must fight anyway. It echoes my own feminism and perhaps in that, I find more commiseration than commonalities with her characters.
There are descriptions of abuse, violence and sexual assault, unflinchingly written but never with the kind of gruesome glee that makes stories triggering. Still, read with precaution. I had to step away multiple times within chapters just to cry.
A part of me is always sad when I come to the end of a good book and this is definitely one. But there’s another side of me that is relieved. And that is the point of eating a raw, green chilli – the euphoric relief afterwards.