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Rumjhum Biswas - 'Banquet for Son-in-law'



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Short Fiction

Banquet for Son-in-law

Shasti Babu chewed on a guava stem and contemplated his banana tree. The guava stem’s tip had already become a brush after two minutes between his teeth. Shasti Babu spit out loose fibre and massaged his teeth and gums. The banana tree grew at a slant on the tiny patch of land adjoining his backdoor, almost tipping over into Nani Gopal’s house. Shasti Babu knew they stole a leaf or two every now and then, so he kept a watchful eye on his precious tree. Especially now that a glossy garnet coloured banana blossom was curving out of the tree and Jamai Shasti was just a month away.

Shasti Babu’s daughter had been married off the previous year with as much pomp as he could muster. He prayed that his daughter’s in-laws were pleased with all that he had given them - his daughter, the ten grams of gold jewelry she wore on her wedding day, the twenty Tangail saris as namaskaris, the top class plywood bedroom set, the Salem steel utensil set, the six kg Rohu fish, the boxes of extra large sweets for the totto, the Bajaj Scooter, Titan watch and gold buttons for his son-in-law, as well as the guest house where he had put up all forty of them for three days. The wedding had been the talk of their locality. Nani Gopal’s wife, whose own daughter had not had such a grand wedding, came to them complaining that her daughter-in-law had not brought half the things that Shasti Babu had given his daughter. Then added with a glint in her eyes, “but my daughter-in-law is so fair, naturally her parents didn’t have to work so hard at finding a boy.”

Shasti Babu ignored this jibe. But Bimala fumed and gnashed her teeth for days. “We will see what colour grandchild she gets! Mark my words it will be coal black like her son. Or worse still, striped like a zebra!” But Shasti Babu’s concerns were of a more immediate nature: what to feed his son-in-law for Jamai Shasti, for as Shasti Babu well knew, the onus of keeping his daughter’s in-laws happy by showing his eternal gratitude towards them for having selected his daughter, fell squarely on his shoulders.

Sundari, the family cow rubbed her neck against the banana tree.
“Ai! Hut-tut-tut!” Shasti Babu charged towards her with his guava stem. Sundari flicked her tail at him disdainfully and went away. “Arrogant cow,” muttered Shasti Babu, but out of ear shot. He didn’t want Sundari unduly upset.

Sundari was a good cow. She was as beautiful as her name, and a cross between a Patnaiya and a New Zealand breed. She had brought two female calves into the world after joining Shasti Babu’s household five years ago. One of these had already fetched a good price. The younger calf remained by its mother’s side, drinking the three litres of milk that Shasti Babu generously allowed it from the thirteen litres that Sundari produced. Now that the calf had started to eat fodder, he was seriously thinking of reducing its quota by a litre. Good quality cow’s milk sold for fifteen rupees a litre. Sundari was an important earning member of the Shasti household.

Shasti Babu inspected the banana tree for one last time before going in. Bimala met him at the kitchen door and handed him the two cloth bags he needed for the market before returning to the kitchen. She would get the rice and dal done before he returned from the market with their day’s requirement of vegetables and fish. Shasti Babu had retired from his non-teaching staff post at the local college. But he still went there and kept the ledgers on a freelance basis. The money was a pittance, but it gave him something to do, and helped him stick to his earlier routine for at least part of the day. It also kept him out of Bimala’s hair in the morning, so her own routine was not disrupted. Shasti Babu still enjoyed his breakfast of rice with dal and fritters or some light fish gravy before leaving for his college; perhaps just to make Bimala feel that he was still the man of the house.

With the bags rolled up under his arm, Shasti Babu went looking for Sundari. Everyday he took Sundari and the calf to Gobindo’s cowshed. Gobindo milked Sundari and measured out the milk under Shasti Babu’s watchful eye. The calf mooed in anticipation for the moment that it would be let loose and allowed to rush at Sundari’s deflated teats. Gobindo paid twelve rupees a litre for the milk. That was three rupees less than the market price, in lieu of which he took Sundari and her calf out to pasture along with his other cows. Gobindo brought her back in the evening, when he milked her again under Shasti Babu’s other watchful eye before the latter took Sundari and her calf back home. What Shasti Babu did not know was that Gobindo milked her in the afternoons as well, and extracted two litres, which diminished her actual quota of milk production in the evening. But ignorance is bliss. And, Shasti Babu listened to Gobindo’s gossip amicably while he milked Sundari, and she flicked her tail at both of them.

Shasti Babu counted the money. Today Gobindo had given him less. But he was not worried. The amount due would be jotted down in Gobindo’s, hisheber-khaata or accounts book, and repaid in due time. The due time would arrive when it was time to sell off the second calf which Gobindo would buy either himself or act as a go-between for its purchase by a fellow milkman. Gobindo would also deduct the fees for impregnating Sundari with the bull that he owned. This was the standing arrangement he had with Shasti Babu and other Bhadrolok Bengalis like him who owned a cow or two, but would not or could not make a business out of the beasts.

Shasti Babu, content with the money in his pocket, walked to the Haat for his daily necessities. He was by nature a contented man. Even when he prayed for his daughter’s happiness at her in-law’s hands, he prayed with the sort of contented half-heartedness that told Bholanath his patron God, that Shasti would adjust his degree of contentment according to the Lord’s dole.

Shasti Babu first scoured the market, looking for bargains. Today’s prized catch were the small carp swimming around in their earthen pots. But the Koi or Climbing Perch which looked like they were of the correct breed and would do Bimala’s cooking justice also were a tempting choice. Shasti Babu, whose expert eyes could make out the pedigree of any fish, ogled the Koi eagerly. Of course it would not do to let that thug Jiban Das know how eager he was, for that would make him lose his bargaining power over the fish-monger. He acted extra gruff, but the lure of the Koi was too much. So he did not clinch the deal entirely to his satisfaction. Shasti Babu consoled himself with the thought that sometimes quality mattered more than price as he moved on to the vegetable sellers.

The season for cauliflowers had waned, and those that were still around were ragged things that even Sundari would reject. The cabbages had already lost their winter crispness. However, the pumpkins looked bright, and the tomatoes were smooth and red, though less juicy than their sisters in season. The saving grace of the market was the mound of Potols or wax gourds lying on a jute mat before the vendor. Shasti Babu looked at them and visualized the dolmas Bimala could make for Jamai Shasti.

Lately, Shasti Babu had taken to visualizing every vegetable and fish for the banquet for his son-in-law. Every time he encountered a particularly robust ash gourd or a tender long bottle gourd or an irresistibly succulent prawn, he closed his eyes and saw it in its most splendid culinary form. In this happy mood of anticipative reverie Shasti Babu had off late been buying more food than was necessary for his wife and himself, much to Bimala’s vexation. Today was no different, and by the time Shasti Babu was through, his pockets were empty and his two cloth bags were bursting at the seams.

Bimala received his bounty in silence. She knew he was going through the initial processes of selection through elimination for that perfect meal, the memory of which would carry their daughter through the rest of the year in sheer marital bliss. She had been cooking two extra items for the past three weeks, all in the name of possible choices for the final menu. Later, after their afternoon siesta was over, when she served cups of tea with Marie biscuits, both of them would discus the pros and cons of the dishes tried out that day and the night before. The menu was drawn up fresh every time an item appealed but did not match with the rest. This problem of a constantly changing menu was compounded by another matter. They did not know much about their son-in-law’s food preferences, except for two things. First, that he liked fish and other edible aquatic creatures more than mutton, but was unfortunately allergic to shellfish. And second, he loved sweets, but not the standard shop made rossogollahs and pantuahs but the complicated home made variety, like gokul pithey, paatishapta pithey, chhaanaar jilepi etc.

Their son-in-law’s sweet tooth created a bit of a dilemma, especially for Bimala, because the season for good date jaggery was over, and most of the sweets that he liked could only blossom under the influence of this fragrant brown sweetening agent. Shasti Babu was generous with his advice. But Bimala knew that she had to come up with not just a reasonably good substitute, but one that was considerably superior to the original as well. Beads of sweat gathered on her forehead as she grated the coconut for another trial dish that would be used as the filling for that day’s version of gokul pithey.

The days flew as Bimala sweated it out in her kitchen. Shasti Babu had already put on a couple of kilos thanks to all the hard work being done in his wife’s kitchen. Summer gathered steam and their menu changed one more time. Meanwhile the banana blossom grew and grew till it almost touched the ground, under Shasti Babu’s happy eyes. He could tell what a delectable mochaar-paturi it would make. Shasti Babu watched its growth excitedly and two days before Jamai Shasti, he brought Bimala out in the wee hours of the morning to take a look at the culinary prize growing in their garden. The banana blossom was gone.

Bimala and Shasti Babu stared at the blossom-less stub in disbelief. A solitary outer petal lay on the ground where the vandalism had taken place. The hoof mark on the powdery surface of the dry soil clearly revealed the culprit’s signature in the pale morning light. Bimala sighed and went back to make the morning tea. Shasti Babu went to get his umbrella.

Sundari’s frantic mooing brought Bimala rushing out. It also brought Nani Gopal, his wife, son and daughter-in-law out. Nobody had seen Shasti Babu lose his temper like this before. Nobody had heard him shout so loudly or beat a dumb animal either. Sundari ran about the little patch of garden with her tail lifted high. Her distressed calf mooed miserably as it tried to keep pace with her. The Nani Gopals' enjoyed the show for a full half an hour before Shasti Babu sat down on the steps, panting and clasping his hand to his heaving chest. Bimala quickly ran inside to get him some much needed water and a haath-pakha to cool his forehead.

“Shastida, running so hard at your age is not good for your heart,” admonished Nani Gopal, smiling smugly.
“How would you feel if such a lovely fresh banana blossom was vandalized by your own family member?” gasped Shasti Babu, still clutching his heart.
“What has happened has happened. You will have to find a substitute dish now,” said Nani Gopal’s wife, smiling slyly.
Bimala looked at her sharply. “How did you know what we were going to do with the banana blossom?”
“Wasn’t it obvious? Why would Shastida check on it everyday? Poor Sundari. I don’t think she will produce any milk today, after all that beating!”
“You’re right; Sundari should not have been beaten. Who knows who the real thief is?”

Bimala went quickly inside before Nani Gopal and his wife could react. Shasti Babu also got up and limped in doors. Nani Gopal’s wife’s shrill voice trailed after him into the house, provoking them to a fight. But Shasti Babu was too disheartened to take up the challenge, and Bimala refused to give her the satisfaction.

They drank their tea in morose silence. Bimala handed him the two cloth bags silently and he took them as silently, without cheer. Shasti Babu went out and tied the rope around Sundari’s neck to lead her to Gobindo’s shed. Sundari followed quietly, though distrustfully, her muzzled calf ambling close. The day had begun badly. Shasti Babu was in no mood to exchange pleasantries. So when Gobindo failed to extract milk from Sundari, he, already put out by Shasti Babu’s mood, gruffly enquired what was wrong with the wretched cow. Shasti Babu didn’t reply. Instead he brought Sundari back home and un-muzzled the calf. The calf amazed at this sudden generosity rushed at its mother’s udders and started to punch at her teats with its mouth.

O Go, forget the haat today,” said Bimala, fanning her husband gently with the haath-paakha. “There is already so much of vegetables in the house. You go take your bath, and I’ll get the meal ready.”

Shasti Babu looked at her with stricken eyes and nodded his head. Bimala looked at his retreating form and her eyes filled with sudden tears. They had both grown so old. It was not fair that he had to take so much of tension after retirement. They had done their duty and got their daughter married. Now it was their turn, to go off on that long postponed pilgrimage to Hardwar and Kaashi, to enjoy their afternoon siestas unfettered by visions of their daughter’s displeased in-laws. She wiped her hands on the edge of her cotton sari and went into the kitchen.

Bimala poured the rice starch into a pail and looked up at the window directly above the tap in the kitchen. But Sundari’s familiar face was not there. It was Sundari’s habit to drink the still warm rice starch and Bimala’s pleasure to feed her that gruel. Bimala frowned. She took the pail and went out into the garden in search of the cow. She found Sundari standing under the ravished banana tree and staring, not at the tree but beyond, where Noni Gopal’s maid was washing the vessels. The maid was muttering under her breath as she scrubbed hard to rid a large pot of sticky bits of boiled banana blossom. Sundari heard Bimala’s foot steps and turned to look at her with large reproachful eyes. Bimala blew a kiss at her and softly coaxed her to come near.

“Now be a good girl, my darling, and drink your gruel. I’ll give you some sweet bananas afterwards. As for this disgusting theft, Sundari, let us keep what we’ve discovered to ourselves. We don’t want the man of the house to get a heart attack, do we?” Bimala stroked Sundari’s soft neck and crooned into her ears.

Sundari relented after a while and stepped down to drink the gruel. Then she followed Bimala up to the back door for the promised sweet bananas. Her calf came prancing over. So Bimala gave both of them a dozen little yellow bananas, quickly before Shasti Babu could find out. Shasti Babu, ignorant of this latest development, ate little before leaving for work. Bimala soaked the dishes for the maid to clean and went for her bath. The house was totally silent except for the steady scraping sound made by the maid’s jhanta as she swept the house. Bathed and fresh, Bimala sat in her Puja room for her hour of bliss and peace. But today was not a day for peace. The maid ran into her pristine Puja room in her stale clothes, almost shrieking with excitement.

O Ma, O Ma, do come and see this strange thing!”
Bimala scowled, but got up, her womanly curiosity getting the better of her piety. They both went out into the garden. Sundari was standing still while her calf suckled furiously, and the white milk dribbled from her other teats onto the parched ground. Bimala stared. Sundari chewed her cud nonchalantly.

“Quickly! Run and get Gobindo. Now! Hurry” Bimala almost pushed the maid out. Then she spent the next frustrating minutes watching the milk flow uncollected. The maid returned with Gobindo. Bimala produced a pail and set the fellow to work.
“There are hardly six or seven litres of milk here,” said Gobindo. “The calf has polished off most of it and the rest has dribbled away! I have told Shastida so many times to keep that calf muzzled. Chhi. What a waste! I left my cows in the field for this!”
“Gobindo, that milk is enough for me. Thank you for milking Sundari. I won’t forget this favour,” said Bimala as she took the pail inside.

Gobindo went away, grumbling to himself. The maid went back to her chores. But Bimala did not restart her prayers. Instead, she took out a handful of batasha from the jar kept in her Puja room and held it out to Sundari. Sundari took this offering without batting her eyes, but she did not flick her tail at Bimala either.

Shasti Babu returned from work and quietly ate his lunch. He took his customary paan after the meal and retired into the bedroom. For the first time in weeks, they did not discuss the banquet. Bimala fanned him as he lay on his side and pretended to sleep. She felt bad, but did not say anything to comfort him. Shasti Babu’s retirement had taken its toll on her more than it had on him. Bimala had prepared many elaborate meals in her time, as a young bride and as the mother of a young girl who was shown to almost as many grooms as the twenty two years she had spent on this earth. Bimala’s mother-in-law had believed in ruling her son’s home with an iron hand. Bimala and her co-sister had suffered quietly, drying their tears on the edges of each other’s saris, until a day arrived when the younger woman quarreled bitterly with the mother-in-law and left with her husband and small son in tow. After that he burden of her mother-in-law’s strictures fell entirely on Bimala’s shoulders. But she took it all in her stride, without ever complaining to Shasti Babu. Bimala had been brought up in the old school, where the mother-in-law was to be obeyed, though not necessarily loved. Bimala had tried to impart these values to her only child, though her motherly instincts made her more protective and she had also filled the girl’s ears with warnings and admonitions as she filled up the wedding trays. Bimala spat the red paan juice into the spittoon, took up an old copy of Desh and read for a while, before she fell into a fitful sleep for she had had a very tiring and eventful day.

Dusk was already creeping in when Bimala woke up. She found Shasti Babu twitching his feet on his favorite perch, a thread bare cane chair he had inherited from his father. She quickly went into the kitchen to make their evening tea.

“What are we to do tomorrow Bimo?” said Shasti Babu in a voice that nearly broke her heart. “Just a day left to prepare for Jamai Shasti. I should have finished the shopping today; tomorrow it will be so crowded and expensive.”
“You’ve taken too much of tension today. Just relax. One banana blossom gone isn’t the end of the earth. Haven’t I been trained by your own mother? I will manage very well, don’t worry. Our first Jamai Shasti. You think I will let my own daughter down? Or even let the neighbors have fun at our expense?”
“You do what you think best, Bimo. After all this is your territory.”

They drank their tea in silence, watching the sun slowly slip away.

Bimala didn’t go to bed till long after Shasti Babu had started to snore fitfully. She was too excited to be sleepy. Besides she had rested well in the afternoon. The quiet night gave her space to work in her ‘territory’. Like Sudhir Moira and his boys, Bimala worked long into the night in order to greet the new day with batches of freshly made milk sweets. She had already boiled and portioned off the milk that morning - so much for the paneer, so much for the kheer and so much for the rabri. Bimala toiled with a calm energy until the whole house smelled sweet and the sweetness entered Shasti Babu’s dreams. The first birds began to utter their first notes when Bimala finally finished. She tidied up the kitchen and put the prepared sweet dishes in the meat-safe in her Puja room, where she normally kept the bhog for her Lakshmi Puja and Sattanarayan Puja. She still had a couple of hours left before the day’s bustle started. Bimala laid down beside Shasti Babu and immediately fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

“Wake up Bimala. I made you some tea.” Shasti gently shook his wife.
“What time is it?” She asked.
“A little late by your standards,” Shasti Babu smiled. “Looks like you didn’t sleep well.

Yesterday’s episode has bothered you much more than me. Don’t worry dear, about the Jamai Shasti. We are what we are, and have done what we could our daughter. Now it is up to Bholanath.” Shasti Babu raised his tea laden hands as he invoked the Lord’s name.
Bimala said nothing. She bent her head to tie her hair into a knot. Then, she quietly took the tea. Shasti Babu liked to surprise her sometimes with morning tea. These surprises usually took place when they had had an argument the night before or when Bimala was sick, or when Shasti Babu wanted to show his affection a little more openly, without appearing to be hen-pecked.

Shasti Babu went into the garden to get Sundari and her calf. Sundari was still wary when he approached, but his cajoling voice and the proffered bananas soon put her at her ease. He was honestly sorry for giving her that beating, and spent a good ten minutes explaining to her why he was mad, stroking her as he spoke. Sundari listened to him without flicking her tail, breathing moistly into his face. Shasti Babu left for the Haat shortly afterwards whistling a tune as he passed Nani Gopal’s house with Sundari and her calf walking beside him. He was determined to be happy and not let the steep pre-Jamai Shasti prices in the Haat spoil his mood.

The Haat was more crowded than before, with people jostling for the choicest vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. It had a festive air about it, and everyone who entered the Haat couldn’t but be infected. Swept up by the tide around him, Shasti Babu jostled and bargained and made his purse stretch as best as he could. Nani Gopal brushed past him with two bulging bags, plus a servant boy carrying another two behind him. They exchanged greetings, and if Shasti Babu noticed the smug look on Nani Gopal’s face when he glanced at Shasti Babu’s meager purchases, he certainly didn’t show it.

Shasti Babu had taken leave from work. He needed one day for the preparation and the next for the actual celebrations. So today, he would eat a light breakfast, and then sit down with Bimala with a cup of tea beside him, ostensibly to help her wash and clean the fish and vegetables, but mostly to be there with her as she worked. It gave him a nice Sunday feeling, having a second or third cup of tea on the verandah in front of the kitchen, with Bimala sitting with her bonthi with the vegetables spilled all around, the whole scene bathed in the soft morning sunlight. Shasti Babu poured some tea into his saucer and sucked in the tea appreciatively.

Bimala smiled. “You did manage to get the potols to go with the peti didn’t you?”
“How could I not? After all who makes fish dolmas like you? Our Jamai will remember the taste till his dying day!”
Balai shaat! Balai shaat! How can you say something as inauspicious as dying about our Jamai?”
“Mistake, mistake,” grinned Shasti Babu. Then his face became a little serious. “Bimo, do you think all this is enough for a good meal?”

Bimala looked at her husband. The lines on his good-natured face seemed freshly drawn. His hand trembled, a little as he lifted the saucer up to his lips.
“There is something I wanted to show you. Actually I wanted to surprise you, but you are so worried…” Bimala got up and motioned him to follow. Shasti Babu put his tea down, a puzzled frown on his face.
“See these? I made them last night. You think our Jamai won’t remember this feast? He will. I guarantee. But first, just to make sure, I want you to taste each and every one.”

Shasti Babu stared at the treasures his wife displayed in her meat-safe. It was packed with brass plates covered with lace doilies that Bimala had tatted years ago as a young woman, plates that were loaded with sweets. His eyes moist with emotion, Shasti Babu stared as his wife placed a serving of each on a steel plate.
“O Go, we have done all that we could for our child. Now the rest is our Bholanath’s responsibility. Come now, and eat. I know how much you love these sweets,” said Bimala, her voice becoming husky with emotion. She sat Shasti Babu down and started to feed him her creations. “Who else do I really cook for, if not for you?”
“You will have to give me company Bimo,” said Shasti Babu in a trembling voice. “I am not so young any more.”

Shasti Babu and Bimala sat down together there among the scattered things for the banquet, laughing and weeping at the same time; they sat sampling the sweets, each tenderly feeding the other. The sun lingered above them that morning, peeping over their shoulders, unwilling to leave this little nest.
End


Glossary

Jamai Shasti - feast held in honor of the son-in-law in Bengal.
Tangail - a special weave of Bengal cotton sari.
Namaskari - presents from the bride to all the relatives of the groom.
Totto - part of the wedding gifts brought by the bride.
Patnaiya - a type of cattle from Bihar, pertaining to Patna the capital of Bihar state.
Bhadralok – gentlemen.
Haat - open air market.
Bholanath - Lord Shiva in his benign form.
Tel Koi - a Bengali dish made with koi, yoghurt, ginger and mustard oil.
Gokul Pithey - a sweetmeat made from pounded rice, stuffed with coconut cooked in sugar or jaggery.
Paatishapta pithey - Bengali sweet pancake.
Chhaanaar Jilepi - sweet made from kneaded cottage cheese fried and soaked in sugar syrup.
Mochaaar paturi - banana blossom cooked with pumpkin, ground mustard and coconut, wrapped in banana leaves.
Haath Pankha - hand held palm leaf fan.
Jhanta - dried rice stalk broom.
Batasha - spun jaggery candy.
Desh - a Bengali magazine.
Moira - sweetmeat maker.
Kheer - thickened milk.
Rabri - desert made from milk boiled till it thickens in layers.
Meat-safe - cupboard for keeping cooked food.
Bhog - food offering for the Gods.
Bonthi - steel blade with which Bengali women cut vegetables/fish etc.
Peti - fish bellies.
Jamai – son-in-law.
Balai shaat – words to ward off curse.

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