Jamai Shashti, a Hindu tradition, is the day when Bengali sons-in-law are feted and feasted. In Our culture, the Jamai (son-in-law) is like God on earth. There is no parallel celebration for the daughter-in-law – perhaps a pointer toward the stark patriarchy that rules India.
If you’re a Bengali man, on Jamai Shashti you get invited to your in-laws and they mollycoddle you and stuff you with the choicest hilsa fish in a bed of ground mustard paste and red chillis, heap your plate with seaming rice. Sweetmeats out of cottage cheese round off a lunch that will take at least 48 hours to travel through your intestine. That’s not all – you go home loaded with presents.
If you are not from Bengal and your daughter is thinking of getting married to a Bengali, Jamai Shashti might set your bank balance back a bit.
With me Jamai Shashti has been different. If I said anything about Jamai Shashti to my mum-in-law (I call her Maman), she wouldn’t know what I was talking about. She’s Iranian, a dear woman who brought up a small army, five kids, one of whom was lassoed and reeled in by this Bengali cowboy. At the time of writing this, she remains lassoed proper.
On Skype, weekends, my mum-in-law chatters away, bubbling with news and repeatedly asking after my welfare.
“Salaam, jan, holé shomo khubé?” (Hello dear, how are you?). The ‘jan‘ added after the name stands for ‘dear’.
“Mèrci, mamanjan, man khubam. Shomo khubee? Aghajan khubé?” (Thank you, Maman, I’m fine. How are you and father?)
That’s where my Farsi begins showing cracks in it’s foundations and while Maman chatters on, I look around helplessly for Farah and wait for her to come over and translate. While I’m waiting, I catch some familiar snatches like ‘love you very much’, ‘waiting to see you in Iran’, ‘look after your health’, ‘don’t work too hard’. The sort of thing that parents say to you.
After our son was born, Maman flew down to lend a hand. She stayed a few weeks and we have no idea what we’d have done without her. She cooked, scrubbed, cleaned, washed and waited. This was her first visit to India but all the while that she was there, Maman never once asked to be taken out sight seeing, go shopping or anything else.
On the day she left, I accompanied her in the Deccan Queen Express to Mumbai for her Iran Air flight back, while Farah stayed back in Pune with our baby son.
Most of the way she was quiet, huddled in her seat with her nose touching the window glass as she stared out the window at the countryside rolling by and I sat next to her with an issue of Time magazine that I’d picked up at the AH Wheeler’s and listlessly leafed through it. That morning even Joel Stein’s irreverently funny column, which was on the recent Tech bubble bust, couldn’t make me burst into laughter and I wasn’t even an investor.
Soon the DQ cleared the Lonavala platform, clattered over multiple track changes and finally settled on one as we ran lickety split into the Western Ghats.
At one point, the coach suddenly swayed a bit more vehemently than normal. My shoulder bumped into Maman’s. Turning to apologize, I saw she was quietly crying. I reached around and held her gently by her tiny shoulders. She turned, sighed and rested her head on my arm, the tears now rolling down both cheeks.
“Thank you for everything, Maman,” I whispered to her softly. Even though she doesn’t speak a word of English, she nodded. Her head was still nestled on my shoulder when the DQ sallied into Dadar Central, platform-4 and eased to a halt. We took a cab to Sahar, reaching there just when they were announcing check-in and security for the Iran Air flight. It was on time.
Those days, if you were seeing someone off at Mumbai’s Sahar International Airport, you couldn’t go in. Because of horrific terror attacks through the previous decade, entrance was barred for all except for passengers and crew and folks who worked inside the airport. You had to say your goodbyes from behind a barrier at the entrance to the departures area.
At the barrier, Maman loaded her one small bag onto a trolley and started toward the Iran Air counters. I don’t usually do this but I tarried and I craned my neck to catch a last glimpse of the small, dear, scarfed woman as she disappeared round the corner of the hall with a pause and a wave.
Maman is still around, back in her native Isfahan. Only, now she has receded into the background, mostly ignored, letting her children and grandchildren run her sprawling home, venturing out rarely and only to pay a visit to the neighborhood mosque.
The most important people in our lives are always the ones who occupy the quietest corner of our hearts.