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Jamai Shoshthi - a history

The oldest and most sacred of the Hindu texts -- the Vedas, are largely concerned with mythologies and rituals related to a number of gods and deities, most of which are identified with either aspects of the natural world (air, water, sun, moon, rain, forests, earth, snakes, spring etc) or aspects of day to day human life -- knowledge/learning, wealth, beauty, love, child birth, small pox, war, etc; you name it and there is a corresponding deity or god/goddess for it.

Polytheistic Hinduism therefore accommodates a large number of gods and goddesses (often manifestations of the one supreme being) and a hierarchy of “major” and “minor” (often local) gods within the pantheon.

Shasthi or Maa Shoshthi is one such “minor” goddess, more akin to a 'guardian angel', who is chiefly concerned with child birth, health of children and that of mothers of new born children. Infant and maternal mortality was and still continues to be very high in the Indian sub-continent and I can therefore appreciate why we needed a goddess for child health and as a “protectress” of children and their mothers.

In addition, however, Maa Shoshthi is also the goddess of fertility, who is invoked when young couples want to start a family, not that we particularly need divine intervention to beget children, given high fertility rates and explosive population growth in the sub-continent.

Be that as it may, the sixth day of the fourteen-day waxing phase (Shukla-paksha) of the moon is considered particularly auspicious for propitiating Maa Shoshthi, which this year falls on 6 June. Further, many believers offer special prayers on the sixth day after the birth of a child.

Now the question is -- how does the son-in-law come to be associated with Ma Shoshthi? In south Asia, even today, many young women face intense family pressure immediately after their marriage to conceive and bear a child preferably a male one. In fact traditionally, parents of the bride wouldn't visit their son-in-law's family unless their daughter gave birth to a male child and I remember hearing my mother talking of this practice that was quite common in the generation that preceded hers, with unveiled contempt.

The son-in-law (Jamai in Bangla) being an integral part of the fertility equation therefore also had to be brought under the extended ambit of the divine grace of Maa Shoshthi and hence the practice of dedicating a fixed day of the year, generally in June, exclusively to the son-in-law came in vogue in Bengal. The particular day came to be named 'Jamai Sashti'.

In contemporary terms, just as we have mother's day, father's day, women's day etc one may consider the Jamai Sashti as “son-in-law's day”. Understandably, minor deity as she might be, Maa Sashti becomes an important deity in her own right.

On the day of Jamai Shoshthi, the in-laws invite their daughter and son-in law for a grand feast, which is preceded by a few rituals. As the son-in-law enters the threshold, the mother-in-law consecrates the occasion and welcomes the former by touching his head with a plate containing six fruits. The mother-in-law subsequently ties a string on the right wrist of the jamai. Turmeric is applied on the string before tying and is called the Shoshthi Suto. It is believed to have the blessing of Ma Shoshthi.

While the centre of attention is the son-in-law, the main person behind the event is the mother-in-law, who, in addition to undertaking the rituals, is in charge of planning and serving the elaborate meal that follows. The menu for the occasion contains the best recipes and dishes prepared by the mother-in-law.

In the olden days, the son-in-law would sit on a mat on the floor, and a large plate usually of bronze or silver would be placed in front of him on a slightly elevated platform. A small mound of fragrant steamed rice would be put at the centre of the plate and small bowls placed around the main plate, each containing a delicacy.

While the son-in-law is eating, the mother-in-law would be in waiting, fanning the former with gentle sways of the traditional Bengali hand-fan. The full range of culinary skills of the mother-in-law is called to order on this day and often preparations start a couple of days before the actual day. There is also exchange of gifts between the son-in-law and mother-in-law.

After the elaborate meal is over, the rest of the day is spent on friendly and cordial social interaction. The occasion is meant to bring the couple, especially the son-in-law closer to the wife's family. As such it is a family festival and aimed to further secure the family ties.

In Kolkata, even today, it is a very common sight to see son-in-laws all decked up around late morning on the day of Jamai Shoshthi, in the traditional attire (dhuti and panjabi) on their way to their in-law's place for the celebration. However, in many families, now-a-days, the rituals are done away with, mainly because of their rather archaic nature, the spread is less elaborate and invitees often include a larger number of relatives primarily newly married couples and children from the generation following the mother-in-law's.

My earliest and most vivid memory of Jamai Sashti however is from one eventful summer thirty years back, when we were visiting Kolkata. Mira Pishi - my third aunt from my father's side decided to organise a special feast for her visiting niece and two nephews (my two elder siblings and I) and her own two children, to coincide with the day of Jamai Shoshthi.

The feast was indeed very special and grand fit for a king. I don't remember the names of dishes my aunt cooked, but I do remember counting the 18 outstanding dishes that she had prepared all by herself. Her culinary skills again were exceptional and this was only rivalled by her outstanding talent as a singer and dancer.

A traditional Bengali Hindu meal is meticulously planned in advance and served course by course, item by item, one after the other, based on a strictly recommended gastronomic progression in which vegetarian dishes are always served first, mutton is served after the fish and in general, richer dishes follow the lighter dishes, ending with a sweet-and sour chutney, desserts and paan. Generally it starts with a little bit of ghee (clarified butter) and hot rice, followed by a lightly bitter-sweet vegetable dish called shukto. This basically helps to clear the palate for the richer dishes to follow. After this follows the lentil and five kinds of crispy vegetable fries, three curried vegetable items, four fish items (including a dish of crispy fried fish), mutton, sweet chutney and four types of desserts, including sweet yoghurt and roshogolla. The meal ends with paan.

Traditionally, there would be three distinguishing features of the feast.

Firstly, the gradually unfolding menu would not be known in advance by those being served, so one wouldn't be able to plan what to expect and hence how much of each item to eat, as each item is being served.

Secondly one would be expected to try every item that was prepared and thirdly, there would be a lot of cajoling, bordering on force feeding by the mother-in-law. Another feature of a traditional Bengali meal is that it has to be had with one's hands. Texture is a very important part of the Bengali meal and feeling the different textures by the fingers is an indispensable part of the overall culinary experience.

In the case of the feast given by my aunt, by the time the eighth course (chingri macher malai curry - tender prawns in coconut milk gravy) was served, my stomach was ready to burst. I however did not leave without trying one particular dessert that had small pieces of slender pati-shapta (equivalent to sweet crepe rolled with a coconut and milk solids filling) dunked in a sauce of thickened sweet milk, flavoured with cardamom and saffron.

When I was asked to recreate a Jamai shoshthi meal by the Daily Star, I was reminded of that summer afternoon almost three decades back. What I did was essentially make an attempt to recreate what was served many years back by my aunt. I managed to finally prepare a 4 course 18 item meal which was as follows:

1. Ghee and rice
2. Luchi (Deep fried, crispy Indian bread made of refined flour)
3. Cholar daal (chick pea lentil)
4. Alu bhaja (crispy fired potatoes) and Begun bhaja (fried brinjal).
5. Alu-phulkopir torkari (curried potato and cauliflower)
6. Chanar dalna (cottage cheese balls in a mild gravy)

7. Macher chop (fish cutlet)
8. Potoler dorma (pointed gourd stuffed with minced prawns, served in a thick gravy)
9. Chitol-macher muitha / kofta (fish balls cooked in a rich gravy)
10. Chingri macher malai curry (lobsters cooked tender in a coconut milk based gravy)
11. Ilish-anarosh (Hilsa fish in a pineapple flavoured mustard gravy)
12. Kosha-mangsho (Spicy mutton curry)

13. Sweet and sour mango chutney

14. Chanar payesh (granular cottage cheese in thickened and flavoured milk)
15. Bhapa shondesh (sweet made from hung curd, milk solids and sugar)
16. Malai cham-cham (sweet made from cottage cheese)
17. Seasonal fruit
18. Paan

In a radical departure from tradition, the Jamai Shoshti event at our place saw quite a few roles reversals. The full platter cooked by the Jamai himself, was laid out in the traditional fashion and the first person to taste the spread was the wife, along with two of her friends. Eventually, more friends joined in.

By Shumon Sengupta


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