Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jamai Shoshthi

I had written this story sometime last year around Jamai Shoshthi, a day set aside in the month of Jaishtha when Bengali mother-in-law's pamper their son-in-law with food and gifts. I wasn't sure of Sulochana's reaction at the end of this story and so toyed with the idea of this story for a while. It was Jamai Shoshthi two weeks back and I had intended to post this then but never got around. Hope you all like it.


The day had dawned stiflingly hot and muggy. Technically it wasn’t even dawn yet. The eastern sky had just turned a shade lighter, a slate grey dhonekhali with few scattered twinkling star work. The seamstress was probably trying a combination of gota-patti on dhonekhali and had decided not to go ahead. Instead she decided on a pale pink border to the slate gray canvas and was working on it right now.

Tossing and turning under the cotton mosquito net, which was held together with safety-pins in the couple of odd places where a rent had grown bigger, Sulochana did not think of dawn in those poetic terms. Instead she cursed the fan, which rotated painfully, doing little to move the hot air. She had been asking for an air-conditioner since last summer but nothing had materialized.
“No one in this house pays any attention to what I say,” she grumbled to herself, “the day I am gone they will understand my importance”.

She was hot and worried about how the day would pan out. But she was also excited.

Today was Shoshthi, the sixth day of Shukla Paksha in the month of Jaishtha. Since the day she had married into this house as a bride, she was christened into the rituals of Aranya Shoshthi on this day. When her Mother-in-law was alive, she was the one who spearheaded the celebration, but now it was Sulochana who made sure that the jackfruit branch was cut, the kheer narus made, the haatpakha--palm leaf hand fans and new clothes bought for each of her 3 children and 2 grandchildren. Her grandkids who were here for the summer would make the figurines of shoshthi thakurun with rice flour and then paint them with turmeric and bright water paint. The kids were excited about the Pujo, though her own sons, now middle-aged executives, could care less.

“Naah, let me get up now. There is so much work to finish. Montu will soon come with milk for the paayesh, Baroda has to be sent to haat for fresh rui and chingri and if I am late, the neighborhood kids will pluck all flowers and leave the tagor tree bare,” she folded her palms towards the east, bowed to the now pink streaked sky and straightened her sari to get ready for the day.

“Thakur, let everything end well today. I have been waiting for this day for five years now,” she threw across these words as a parting shot.

Her plea made sense. Sulochana’s 35 year old daughter Tara was coming home today. It had been 5 years since her last visit from USA where she was doing her PhD. All these years she had offered one excuse after another to defer her visit -- visa problem, limited money from the teaching assistantship, not enough vacation, complexity of her thesis which never seemed to get finished. Tara always had an excuse when Sulochana insisted that she come visit them.

Deep down Sulochana knew Tara was avoiding her mother and the list of marriage proposals that she would have ready, had Tara managed a visit.But what could Sulochana do? How could she let her only daughter live a lonely life in faraway California, while she led a full house with 2 married sons, their children, a dog and two parrots ? How could she a Mother not pine for the perfect son-in-law for her only daughter ?

Today as Sulochana stirred milk in the shiny brass dekchi in her kitchen, her heart fluttered like the tej-patta in the milk both in anticipation and disappointment. Two days ago Tara had called. In a halting voice she had asked if it was okay to bring a guest with her.An American. Her fiance. The news that first seemed like a shock, had now grown familiar to Sulochana. Really, in this day and time when Domino’s delivered pizza to their home even in suburbia of Madhyamgram, an American jamai was nothing to lose one’s sleep over. He sure would be much better than these Bengali boys who think Chicken pomodoro is way better than Kosha murgi.

Bolstered by her own belief, Sulochana started to stir the paayesh with more vigor now. She had planned an elaborate meal for lunch, to welcome Tara and her fiance. That today was also Jamai-shoshthi, a day set aside for celebrating son-in-laws in a Bengali family, seemed to her like a divine signal. Unsure of her American guest’s taste, Sulochana had decided to go the traditional route with few modern twists thrown in. A saag bhaja -- green spinach leaves sauteed with garlic and red chilli to start off the meal. Then a dal. Sulochana had narrowed down on a tetor dal with kaancha moog cooked with cubed pieces of bottlegourd. Bottlegourd was the perfect vegetable for this hot and humid day. Its coolant properties along with antiseptic of bittergourd would be fitting for this visitor from the colder clime. For the fish curry, she skipped the more traditional rui for a chingri today. Maybe a bhapa, large prawns steamed with grated coconut, light and yet flavorful. A kaancha aamer chaatni, with a runny gravy that Tara adored, to round off the meal. And then a aam doi, mango yogurt made with the sweet himsagor from her own tree.

The thought of this menu made Sulochana relax a bit and look forward to the day. “Manu’r Ma, chop the spinach really fine for the saag bhaja. Remember to wash it well. My American jamai is not used to the pesticides we ingest every day,” she instructed her house help. The kitchen grew hotter and fell into a rhythm as the day progressed. The shil-nora crushed spices, the fire blazed the pungent mustard oil, the hefty pieces of fish sizzled in oil.Outside, a lone crow had taken shade in the branches of the mango tree and cawed every few minutes. Sulochana’s fair face glistened with beads of perspiration that had gathered on the crease of her brow. “Ahh, can someone shoo that crow away”, she said irritably.

The dal and saag were done, the large prawns would be steamed right before lunch-- that way they would retain their juice and be most flavorful, the yogurt had already been set. She had been fasting since morning, taking only sips of lime water to keep her going. She wanted to finish off her prayers quickly and be ready with all her time on Tara’s arrival. Her husband and sons along with the grandchildren, had already left for the airport to receive Tara’s flight.

“Ma, why don’t you take rest, while I make the chaatni,” suggested her younger son’s wife. But today, Sulochana wanted to cook each dish herself. Food was the only way Sulochana knew to express her love and this lunch was going to be a slice of her heart. She wanted to welcome this stranger into her family with an open heart and she would prove to Tara that her love for her daughter’s american husband was to be no less than her own son’s.

The pujo for Ma Shoshthi today was done in a hurry. The Goddess would understand. It was already one in the afternoon and Sulochana was getting tired, straining her ears for crunch of wheels on the driveway. Her stomach lurched in anticipation and hunger. Who could it be? She lapsed into moments of day-dreaming while chanting her shlokas. Her mind scanned the Facebook pictures that Tara shared with her brothers. Maybe it was that fair skinned guy with a boyish grin who shared her office at the University. Or was it the slightly older Spanish professor, she raved about? Anyway, there was little for her to do now. The choice had already been made.

Right when she raised the shaankh to blow a heralding sound, the car pulled into the driveway. Sulochana’s hand, holding up the shaankh, trembled and with a last bow to her deity, she gathered her red bordered sari and shuffled to her feet. Shrieks of laughter and loud voices could be heard outside. The door to the patio was ajar and her daughter-in-laws were rushing outside with cheerful welcome ringing in their voice. Sulochana arranged the dancing fire of prodeep, few grains of dhaan and the dubbo-- three pronged grass on a brass plate and steadied herself, her heart drumming and waiting for Tara’s high pitched call of “Ma”.

“Ma”, a calm composed voice rang behind her.

Sulochana whirled around into Tara’s slightly anxious face, her eyes scanning for the stranger, her would be jamai, in the crowd. Tara had a faint smile but her eyes were anxious and defiant at the same time. This was exactly how her Tara was, even as a baby, she was self-willed and would do only what she had set out for.

“Ma, meet Sarah,” Tara said and pushed an athletic looking girl in cropped hair and faded jeans to the front.

“My fiancee”

Sarah, not sure if she should hug or do a polite handshake, extended a hand which remained suspended in mid air.

At first Sulochana could not fathom what Tara said. She looked around with a puzzled look. Her sons, standing behind Tara, were nodding their head making silent gestures to her. She tried to catch her daughter-in-law’s eyes but they glanced away. The sudden silence was pregnant with all kinds of possibilities which left Sulochana confused.

And then she saw Tara’s face and she knew. She could not make much sense of it but Tara’s face had taken on a defiant look and she saw her protective hand around her partner.

If Tara is happy, so was she, Sulochana decided."Bhogoban shobar mongol koruk."

She held Sarah’s face between her palms and sprinkled some dhaan on her head, praying for her long life. The pressure cooker whistled in the background. The steamed coconut prawns would be ready in just a few minutes.

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  1. Kotodin por tomar lekha porlam! Khub bhalo likhecho. Aajker diney eyirokom decision ta e natural ... ekjon Ma toh meyer khushi ar mongol e chaiben.
    Darun! :-)

  2. Ki bhalo Sandeepa. anekdin pore abar tomar lekha porlam.

  3. Such a lovely read, I find so much similarity between your writing and Jhumpa Lahiri or V.S. Naipaul. Very lyrical and endearing. :) Arekta boi hoye jak!

  4. Very nice Sandeepa...aro lekho.

  5. Oh wow, I loved this! It brought tears to my eyes!!

  6. I loved the twist in the tale...and I do agree that your writing is similar to Jhumpa Lahiri...I mentioned it in my review of your book also...ebar ekta galper boi lekho pleaseeee

  7. After I have finished reading this story, I was curious to read comments here...Don't know why, but I think in reality it wont be possible or at least it wouldn't be that easy...but if we live in ideal world and with ideal people who can think beyond societal approval, peer pressure etc then possibly it can be possible ..till that day ...I will keep this story in mind ..Change start within us first :-)..
    Such a beautiful and emotional journey for Sulochna and as I read this I feel I am sharing her feelings for her daughter..and that is what your stories create within us...keep writing..onek din porey tumar blog e time spent korlaam ..khub bhalo laglo ...take care ..hugs and smiles - Jaya


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