Every comedian knows that a mother in law joke, will always save the day. These poor ladies, have been landed with a permanent image of being bossy, belligerent, figures of fun, always interfering in their son/daughter in law’s lives, even inspiring the razor sharp leaved, Snake Plant, to be nicknamed ‘Mother in Law’s Tongue’, after them. In such a scenario, the existence of a day, dedicated principally by mothers in law, to the wellbeing of the sons in law, may be met with some serious disbelief.
Bengal however, suffers from no such problems.In a state, which thrives on festivals and happily declares that there are thirteen festivals for twelve months, there’s a dedicated Son In Law’s Day aka ‘Jamai Shoshthi’, which is directed principally, by the mother in law herself. The lucky sons in law of Bengal are the main focus of a socio-religious festival which revolves solely around their continued prosperity and happens only in Bengal, on the sixth day of the Jaishtha( June) month, of the traditional Hindu calendar, every year. The name is a combination of two words; ‘jamai’,meaning son in law and ‘Shoshthi,’ the folk goddess, who is venerated as a benefactor and protector of children and the family. Shoshthi is also the sixth day of each month in the Hindu calendar.
Despite being basically, just an age old, home based, simple custom, Jamai Shoshthi is taken very seriously, especially by the jamais themselves, despite some, coyly pleading, apparent reluctance. The state government, in an attempt to cheer up the poor souls who stand in danger of being deprived of their special day this year because of lockdown restrictions, has declared Jamai Shoshthi on 16th June, to be a state holiday, which is good news indeed, especially for those jamais with in-laws living in distant places.
As with most customs coming down the ages, there’s also a sweet little folk story, supporting this one too.There was a greedy daughter in law, who ate up all the best ( fish) dishes in the household and blamed it on the cat, little knowing that the feline a ‘ bahon/vahan’, (mount) of Shoshthi, would go and complain about the lady’s gluttonous ways to her mistress. As a result, Shoshthi took away the greedy woman’s children and the latter was banished into the forests by her in laws. Repenting earnestly for her misdeeds she was pardoned by Shoshthi after doing some prescribed rituals on the sixth day of the month of Jaistha. Her children were restored to her, leading to the custom of observing Jamai Shoshthi, where mothers in law, always concerned about their children’s welfare, invite the sons in laws together with their respective families, on that particular day and ply them with food, new clothes and other gifts too. In the case of newlyweds, the bride’s mother may even send a veritable mini trousseau to her daughter’s new home, to keep up the bride’s status with her in laws.
This custom could possibly, also have its roots in the patriarchal system of keeping the sons in law happy, in times when girls were not allowed to work and were financially dependent on their husbands. So their anxious parents tried their best to keep the son in law satisfied to ensure that their daughter too, would be looked after well. Be that as it may, the whole custom devolved around praying for the sons in law happiness and prosperity and by extension, keeping the family looked after as well, too. Obviously, with the passage of times and with both partners earning now, this is no longer the case but the custom of blessing the son in law on that day continues with full gusto, except for some very determined, married young ladies, who question it’s very existence and will have none of it. The festival now, is directed more towards the well being of the whole family although the name remains the same.
Jamai Shoshthi at home, kicks off with a quaint custom, where the mum in law, fans the jamai with a ‘haath pakha’, the age old, hand held fan made of palm leaves, while uttering ‘shaat, shaat, shaat,’ a blessing repeated three times, possibly as a protective mantra, followed by more benedictions. After this short ceremony, there’s some studied lingering and then a concerted dash is made to the dining table, once the luchis(deep fried flatbreads) arrive.
Truth to tell, Jamai Shoshthi is all about food, in fact it’s Man versus Food. Nothing bears out the truth of the old adage, ‘the way into a man’s heart is through his stomach’, better, than this custom. The puja to Shoshthi for the family’s welfare, remains almost inconspicuous and its the gargantuan ‘bhojon’, the feast, comprising an array of the best of Bengali veg and non veg dishes, starring hilsa, prawn and mutton, which actually gets the star billing.The jamais are expected to binge till they burst but the mother in law, who usually takes charge of the strictly non veg menu and the kitchen, will herself, either fast or have a simple vegetarian meal.
The commonly accepted traditional picture of Jamai Shoshthi is that of the lordly son in law in full Bengali regalia, seated all by himself at a marble topped table, eating majestically off a gigantic silver thali, surrounded by at least eight small, silver bowls, piled high with different dishes. The women of the family, especially the mother in law, are seen clustered respectfully around him, fanning him with palm leaved fans, all looking slightly anxious. All this is, thankfully, history now and while sons in law are still fussed over and plied with choice specialities, the rest of the family including the in laws, are equally there at the table and a jolly good time is had by all.
In keeping with the times, when cooking up a storm at home isnt always possible or viable, the jamais are now sometimes feted at hotels and restaurants, which serve up special menus for the day. This isnt a bad idea at all because the jamais, the daughters and their families are taken to plush places and the mum in law, can also sit back and enjoy the in house hospitality.
As the value of holding on to family bonds during turbulent times becomes increasingly apparent and essential, Jamai Shoshthi takes on a special significance and we can actually thank Shoshthi’s cat, for carrying tales to her mistress and putting the greedy woman in her place. And while we are at it, maybe remember to put out a special fishy morsel for the cat to eat, too.