The pampering of sons-in-law in Bengal takes on epic epicurean proportions for Jamai Shashthi—a phenomenon not to be found in any other community or country. The timing—in the heart of summer—would seem anomalous for such feasting, but it has always been so. It is actually a season which is blessed with the juiciest of fruit, from mangoes to litchis and jackfruit and in fact five types of fruit are laid out for the jamai, as part of the repast. And sweets a plenty of course.

Observing it in the Bengali calendar, you come upon the sixth of Jaistha, which falls this year on the 31st of May.  It is a celebration of the son-in-law, the jamai, who is treated right royally by the mother-in-law who cooks up a storm for him with wide-ranging delicacies.

In a feast fit for the gods, the shashuri—mother-in-law lays out a huge variety of the jamai’s favorite food items as he is welcomed into the in-laws home with much fanfare. Gifts are lavished on him, but most of all it is the food that takes center stage. And naturally, the rituals, as the daughter and son-in-law are welcomed home, and a small puja is performed, followed by the feast. It is a great day for bonding, and while the couple is blessed, there is also the underlying purpose, it is said, of ensuring that the son- in-law treats the daughter of the house with due respect.

A maha bhoj thali has varieties of the best fish, meat and a selection of vegetarian items, many types of rice, pulao, fried items, and a huge selection of sweets, presented in the most appetizing manner possible. Every household has a different kind of spread, so what we will do in our report is to focus on the modern developments of jamai shashthi, which is to see how many of the stand-alone restaurants and the top hotels have now crafted elaborate menus, to cater to the fact that many households, or mothers in law may not have the requisite back up infrastructure for large scale meals.

The pictures shown here would give an idea of the tempting offerings, perhaps heavy on the pocket, but a convenient alternative. The atmosphere and ambience created by these outlets is commendable.

How did it all originate? The most popular story is about a greedy daughter-in-law who was given to consuming all the food prepared, and the blame would be laid squarely on the household cat. As it happened, the cat was the vahana of Goddess Shashthi, and tattled to her. And so it happened that the seven sons and a daughter were “stolen”. The shattered daughter-in-law ran away to the forest to seek solace in solitude. The goddess Shashthi is said to have appeared to her in the form of an old woman, who heard the whole sad story and who then proceeded to remind her about her past misdeeds. Repentance, and forgiveness, and she was made to go through a set of rituals on the sixth day of Jaishtha to get back her children. Ever since, mothers pray for the well-being of their children, which has morphed, possibly, into women wanting the well-being of their married children and performing Shashthi puja.  Versions and interpretations do the rounds.

If Jamai Shashthi smacks a little of male chauvinism, there’s something interesting that happened a few years ago, when Shashi Puri of Trinca’s invited some of us women for a function which was termed “Bouma asthami” which is a treat for daughters-in-law on ashtami. It was at Trinca’s and continued for many years, and we all dressed up in our finery and had a great treat, complete with music.

Anyone for a revival?