All families have their secrets. My in-laws had one — and it was called Jamai Sasthi. For years, I had no clue that a festival existed in Bengal where sons-in-law were feted with grand feasts and gifts. Jamai Sasthi — marked on the sixth day of the Jyashtha month — came and went, year after year, and I never got a whiff of it. I later reasoned that my progressive in-laws didn’t want a male-specific ritual that only celebrated a son-in-law. But I quite made up for it when a friend started inviting me home every year on this day, and laid out a spread. And what a feast it has always been.
When it comes to food, Bengalis anyway tend to go overboard. But on special occasions, there is no stopping them. So, as in many Bengali homes on this day, a special kansa thali is placed before me with matching bowls, all carrying choice delicacies. On one side of the thali, my friend places various kinds of vegetarian dishes — usually chane ki dal with juicy bits of fried coconut, khus khus with gourds, and parmal with potatoes. On the right are the non-vegetarian specials — prawns cooked with grated coconut and mustard, kosha mangsho (dry mutton curry) and fish in mustard sauce, or in gravy enriched with raisins and whole spices. At the centre of the platter sits a small mound of rice, with a wedge of lemon, some enticing green chillies and a little heap of fritters — prepared with potatoes, brinjal and so on — on the side.
The festival comes wrapped in folklore. Legend has it that there was once a woman who would finish up all the food in the house and blame a poor cat for it. This angered Sasthi, the goddess whose mount is a cat. The woman lost a child, and started worshiping the goddess, who was pleased, and the child came back. But the in-laws were displeased when they heard the story, and wouldn’t let the woman visit her parents. The parents, on the other hand, were keen to see their daughter; so, on the day of Sasthi Puja, they invited their son-in-law over for a meal. Their daughter accompanied her husband — and the parents were happy to see her again. And since then, the day has been known as Jamai Sasthi.
This year, it falls on May 25. In kitchens across Bengal, and in many other parts of the country (and elsewhere, too), you’ll find masalas being ground on a stone slab, vegetables neatly diced and kept ready to be dunked into gravies, fat pieces of fish sizzling in mustard oil and pressure cookers with meat curries whistling away.
Hilsa and prawns may cost the earth, but they are an essential part of a Jamai Sasthi meal. You may find chingri malai curry — prepared with coconut milk — and shorshey bhapa ilish, a sublime dish of steamed hilsa, coated with mustard, peppered with green chillies and drizzled with mustard oil. Prawns and hilsa often mark the divide between West Bengal and the erstwhile East Bengal. The former revels in the seafood, and the latter in the hilsa.
The Jamai Sasthi rituals, my friends tell me, were differently observed by the people of the two regions. In earlier times, the East Bengal family looked forward to welcoming their daughter home on this day, along with her husband, for she rarely visited her maika as travelling in the region divided by rivers and huge tracts of land was not easy. In West Bengal, the day often saw lavish gifts being bestowed by the bride’s parents on the groom and his family — largely to keep her in-laws happy. Now, of course, both sides celebrate it with food and festivity.
Sweets play a major role in this, for Bengalis (and I know this as one-half Bengali) don’t have a sweet tooth but possess 32 sweet teeth. Payesh — kheer cooked with a special, tiny rice called Govindabhog, and garnished with nuts and raisins — has to be served, along with mishti doi, sandesh, rasgullas and other sweets. You’ll often find patishapta, too — amazing crepe-like sweets, prepared with powdered rice, semolina or maida, with a filling of coconut, jaggery and kheer.
The wonderful bit about the Internet and the new delivery system is that you can order sweets from anywhere you wish to, including from some of the best-known Kolkata sweet shops. I am right now trying to decide between mihidana — tiny, juicy boondis — and those delicious baked rasgullas.
Jamai Sasthi, clearly, is a reason to stuff one’s face. But I wish we could have a special day celebrating a daughter-in-law, too — like a dear friend’s father did for many years before he passed away. He and his daughter-in-law went bar-hopping on that day every year, had a nice lunch somewhere, ended with coffee and gifts, and eventually tottered back home. Bahu Sasthi, anyone?
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