The first thing that I noticed was the crowd. The market in Bungalee Tola neighbourhood of Varanasi teems with people every morning but that day it was jam-packed. You had to turn and twist your shoulders to squeeze your way through the mass of shoppers.
The closeness of the market to the Ganga did not help. The shrunken river flowed languidly and no breeze rose from it. The day was hot and humid. My shirt clung to my skin.
Greengrocers and fishmongers to attract buyers, mostly Bengalis, were shouting with unprecedented fervour. The customers were also equally spirited. They haggled noisily before buying anything.
The combination of heat, humidity, stench of sweaty bodies and the noise was sickening and made my head reel. I wanted to leave the place immediately to get some fresh air. It was then I noticed fans; fans made of dried palm leaves. They were ubiquitous in the market.
The fishmonger had heaped them along with his heaps of fish. The greengrocer had piled them beside the mounds of vegetables. Even urchins, clutching a few fans were tugging the koortah sleeve or the sari end of the shoppers, hoping to sell a fan and earn some money. They got only scowls. The handle of the fan was sticking out from bulging nylon shopping bags of those who had shopped and were returning home.
I was intrigued. I would often hang out at Bungalee Tola but had never seen so many fans being bought or sold frantically.
Was there going to be a major power cut in Varanasi? But the papers had not said so. Moreover, nearly every home had a power backup system.
I asked a vegetable seller about the fans.
‘Because today is Jamai Shashthi,’ he replied.
‘Jamai Shashthi?’ I barked in utter surprise.
Jamai means son-in-law and Shashthi means sixth. Jamai Shashthi is a Bengali festival, celebrated in honour of the son-in-law. The married man becomes a king for his in-laws on the day of the festival. He visits the home of his in-laws on Jamai Shashthi to be fed with the most delicious Bengali dishes and lavished with gifts.
The festival falls on the sixth day of Jayesthha month of the Bengali calendar; hence the name Jamai Shashthi.
But then what’s the link between Jamai Shashthi and fans? The vegetable seller was too busy and too brusque in his reply and dissuaded from asking anything more.
I thought for some time and talked to some Bengalis and some friends and came to a conclusion that seemed pretty logical to me.
Jamai Shashthi has its origin in Bengal in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The Jayeshtha month coincides with June when Bengal is hot and humid. The Jamai in those days must have trudged long distances or travelled by bullock cart or sailed on boat to reach the house of his in-laws. He would be bathed in his own sweat on reaching the home of his in-law. Electricity was unheard of in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. So the in-laws must have fanned the Jamai with a fan made of a palm leaf to soothe him. Every home in Bengal even today has fans made of a palm leaf. But to welcome the Jamai on Jamai Shashthi, people must have bought new fans.
Nowadays air-conditioners are quite common. Today, the Jamai most probably must be visiting the air-conditioned home of his in-laws in an air-conditioned car on the day Jamai Shashthi. Times have changed but not the traditions.
A Bengali calendar or almanac graphically depicts festivals. Jamai Shashthi is depicted with a man sitting cross-legged on the floor, with a platter in front of him and a woman sitting beside him with a fan.
Today is Jamai Shashthi.