Balli Kaur Jaswal’s The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, Reviewed by Heather Bass

Three women hold hands on the cover of the book

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters begins with Sita Shergill overhearing the beautifully-composed farewell letter dictated by her roommate at the hospital (1-2). Sita dismisses the notion of leaving a similarly sentimental goodbye. Instead, she resolves to send her three daughters—Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina—on a pilgrimage to India. She crafts a detailed itinerary for them, with tasks like soaking in the healing waters at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and scattering Sita’s ashes in the “sacred waters of Lokpal Lake,” in hopes her daughters will connect with their heritage. Each chapter begins with Sita’s instructions and illustrates how the sisters either fall short on, or miraculously fulfill, their mother’s last requests.

Just like real daughters, the Shergill sisters often fall short of their mother’s wishes. Also like real sisters, they bicker constantly. Rajni, the eldest sister, strives for perfection, adhering to all their mother’s rules, such as prohibition during the pilgrimage, while struggling with the fact that her son is dating and has impregnated an older woman.. Meanwhile, Jezmeen is an undiagnosed alcoholic, consumed with the worry over her crumbling acting career. Shirina, the youngest, keeps her head down, trying not to draw attention to herself while attempting to save her toxic marriage. Their individual struggles make it difficult for them even to share meals without devolving into argument. Eventually, it becomes clear that they must come clean to one another to resolve their separate troubles.

Although Unlikely Adventures focuses on the Shergill sisters and their family feuds, Jaswal presents a not-so-glamorous view of India. Poverty is part of the landscape, such as at the train station in Amritsar: “Beggars slept here—not on the edges, but in the middle of the floor, so [Shirina] had to step around them. [She] met the pleading gaze of one woman sitting up on a folded piece of cardboard, a threadbare sari wrapped around her bony frame” (125). Jaswal also describes “mountains of garbage [that] glittered behind clusters of boxy houses” (116). When trying to find a clean place in the Yamuna River to fulfill another of their mother’s tasks, the sisters struggle because “the river [i]s clogged at the banks with rubbish. Empty plastic bottles and scraps of wood bobbed along” (295-296).

Each sister grapples with India’s misogyny in her own way. Jaswal also addresses the social injustices women, including the Shergills, face. Rajni witnesses her mother’s inability to claim her deceased husband’s land to support the family. Jezmeen is swept up in a women’s march and her participation lands her in prison. Shirina finds herself in the illegal world of female feticides.

Despite tackling some challenging issues, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters remains a fairly light-hearted read—it feels like chick lit and may be an ideal choice for summer reading. Through the Shergill sisters, readers are taken on a journey through India, ending with understanding and good feels.

Jaswal, Balli Kaur. The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, a Novel. William Morrow, 2019.