Indulging in son-in-laws, Bengali style

Jamai Sasthi, or the day of the son-in-law, is a day of pure indulgence of unabashed gluttony

Indulging in son-in-laws, Bengali style
Representative Image

Kutumb, a restaurant in north-west Delhi, offers an eye-popping 45-item thali, perhaps the largest spread in the country. Though it regrettably has only vegetarian dishes, the amount can comfortably feed four people with standard appetite. Now, with a little sense of exaggeration, imagine a poor individual being forced to eat almost a similar bewildering array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian items on a sultry day, perhaps with the limited reprieve of distributing it over lunch, snacks and dinner on a single day.

Gluttony unplugged

That is the level of gluttony that the average Bengali parents-in-law expect their sons-in-law to bravely display on a day in mid-June. Called Jamai Sasthi, or day of the son-in-law, it marks the peak of gluttony that Bengalis are globally famous for.

It’s a day when generations of parents-in-law have perpetrated the most delicious form of human rights violation on young and not-so-young sons-in-law, irrespective of their ability to keep the daughters happy.

From the first step

The archetypal good son-in-law visits the home of his parents-in-law with their daughter and grandchildren, preferably with boxes of sweetmeats. But the lavish indulgence starts from the moment they step in.

From the day before, the mother-in-law gets busy in the kitchen rustling up an elaborate menu with no shortcuts anywhere. She rushes off her hapless husband, often in his sixties and seventies, to the market to shop for the best fish, mutton, vegetables, fruits and sweets.

Sherbet and sweets

Usually, the son-in-law steps in at morning and the welcome begins with a cool drink (read aam pora sherbet) to beat the heat and a large and oppressive spread of sweets follows. Most reputable retailers are besieged by queues of middle-aged gentlemen waiting anxiously to reach the counter before the stocks end.

All sorts of sweets that Bengal is famous for are in high demand but some like the evergreen rosogolla, baked rosogolla, misti doi, mango doi, rosomalai and rabri a variety of sandesh are in special demand.

Interestingly, the first challenge Nobin Chandra Das (1825-1925), the fabled inventor of rosogolla, faced was making a new sweet item that a wealthy mom-in-law of Kolkata wanted to surprise her sons-in-law with on Jamai Sasthi day.

Fish mania

But the real toast of Jamai Sasthi lies in fish and Bengal’s proverbial love for anything swimming in the sweet waters of the Gangetic delta is on full display on this day. There is a frantic rush at the fish market to pick up the best bekti, chitol, pabda, lobster, tangra, mourala. But the unstated goal of most fathers-in-law lies in grabbing the best hilsa in the market.

In fact, a father-in-law’s rating points often depends on the quality and size of the hilsa he can procure for the son-in-law. Regrettably, mid-June is not the apt season for fresh hilsa catch but that does not deter anyone from paying a fortune for a fish that has been preserved in commercial cold storages for months.

Bengalis can prepare fish in a bewildering variety and almost every Bengali middle-aged woman is an ace researcher of fish preparations and they enthusiastically plunge in the elaborate exercise of pampering the son-in-law.

Mutton, a relatively standardised product, doesn’t really test the nose of the father-in-law for shopping expertise.

Researchers at work

Purchase over, the baton changes hands and passes on to the moms-in-law who must sweat it out in the kitchen for the annual test of culinary skills. Women devote hours of research among their friends and relatives, over phone and internet to find a perfect recipe to unleash a surprise on the son-in-law who also laps up the royal indulgence like a camel in an oasis.

The traditional image of a Jamai Sasthi in Bengal is the son-in-law squatting on the floor on an heirloom piece of hand-embroidered mat ambushed by a big bell metal thali and at least a dozen bowls stuffed with delicacies as the mom-in-law looks over, cooling him down with a hand-held fan as he struggles to relish the painstakingly prepared items.

Modern times

Days have changed. The hand fan is long gone and ACs have now made the gastronomic torture more bearable. None really sits on the floor except perhaps in a few traditional households in north Kolkata that sets great store by tradition.

Many fathers-in-law still wrestles in fish markets and sweet outlets but the number of families that splurge on the son-in-law at a plush restaurant or a 5-star hotel is steadily increasing. The convenience factor is increasing over tradition. It’s a relief for the poor sons-in-law too. Harassed throughout the year at home and workplace, he finds the indulgence and prince-like treatment a bit too much to digest in less than a day’s time.

The a la carte order of restaurants perhaps suits him, and his digestive system, better. This year all restaurants are offering lavish spreads delivered at the doorstep. For those who still feel uncomfortable and stressed by the gastronomic indulgence, there is Gelusil.

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