Birthdays in an adult world
published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
Birthday. The day I was born into this world. An annual commemoration of that event. At first, it was my parents who celebrated them. As a child of only a few years, I must have been fascinated by the candles and the cake and the singing and joyous emotions of my parents and everyone gathered around. As I grew older, birthdays became a symbol of gifts. And more cake. I still remember the cake I had on perhaps my 6th birthday. It was three layers, stacked on top of the other, decked like a building. I was amazed thinking all of that was for me and I got to stuff myself in so much cake. Never mind that I couldn't eat it all, or could anyone else, and we had it in the fridge for days. A little older, birthdays became occasions where I received gifts. Usually toys. Or stationery. Anything to help my 'learning' mind. If a relative was kind enough to offer me money, I dutifully handed it over to my parents as I wasn't old enough to buy things myself yet. Back then birthdays were something that were exciting because everyone else around me was exciting. Some good things happened, there was more music and better clothes than the usual everyday, and people sang and danced. It felt like fun, and so I associated birthdays as celebrations that somehow revolved around me.
During the teenage years, the focus of birthdays changed from parents and relatives to friends. Friends who went to school with me, or friends who were neighbours, or friends whom I played with. The definition of a friend was really fast and loose back those days. It became basically anyone I hung out with. In the mornings, mom would follow the Indian tradition of performing pooja or aarti to mark the blessed occasion. I would get to wear what was called the 'fancy dress' to school, which meant that I was excused from wearing the uniform. If a kid turned up to class dressed in colourful clothes, you could bet that it was his birthday. One would get a bag of chocolates to distribute it amongst the classmates and then later take a trip to the staff room. Teachers would often find it amusing to take chocolates, and students would often be terrified if they just might decide to check on their homework. No punishments would be handed to the birthday boy if they could be avoided. Everyone was super nice. Teachers didn't pester for answers. And there was more leeway and consideration given on the play field.
Once back home, there used to be a small party where everyone was invited, though mostly it was just the kids. Most would come bearing the gift of chocolates. Others would walk in with toys. Family and relatives usually had nicer gifts in lieu of maintaining their imaginary reputation. The cake would be brought out and everyone would gather around. Someone would light the candles. The pressure of blowing all the candles out at once was tremendous and a matter of prestige. Then, following a non-verbal permission from mom, I would make an incision on to the cake while the gathered populace drudged along to a simplified rendition of "Happy Birthday to you". It was done as a matter of routine and tradition. The song never had any real enthusiasm beyond the first five words. The first piece of the cake would always go to the parents. Then the cake would be whisked away while I stood there receiving the lukewarm wishes and the obligatory gifts. Someone would cut the cake in the kitchen. Guests would be served snacks, usually crisps (or chips, as long as you know what they are) with chocolates and a piece of cake. It was essential that everyone got exactly one piece of cake. Refreshments would be some flavoured drink. Kids would wolf down the food and wonder if they could get some more. Dishes would be compared. The number of crisps versus the size of the cake. Did the cake have cream on top. Any decorative icing. Bigger and more intact pieces would receive more pride.
Everyone had a technique of how they ate at birthday parties. Some would eat the cake first, others would start with whatever was savoury. Some would have a bit of everything. Finishing the food, the kids would turn the area in to a playing field. If the parents had to leave early, that kid disappeared. Others would play whatever game was suitable for the number. Then they would leave too. Dinner was the best of the best that night. Whatever dish I most cherished and loved, would be present. Things would be bought just because it was my birthday. Even when we could not afford a lot of the good stuff, eating the food prepared always felt rich. Because it was made with so much love, and it felt amazing with every bite.
Throughout the day, there would be phone calls, mostly from relatives who would
wish me and enquire how things were going. Listening and talking to them doing that is the most boring thing. The phones those days were land lines, often kept in a corner of the living room. I grew up not having my parents call me demanding to know where I was or asking me to get home immediately. If I knew I was getting caned, doing all those stupid insane things wouldn't have seemed so much fun. While talking to a relative the call barely lasted more than a minute. Two tops. Then the phone was passed to mom or dad, and I was free to go. I would get busy admiring my gifts or watch people busy with preparations for a wonderful dinner.
The next big change in birthdays came when I moved out to stay in a hostel. The age was 16.
Very not sweet. I was a stereotype teenager, still clutching to the vestiges of society and unsure of my place in it. I would be affected by every little thing and everything and anything had a huge impact on me. Staying with strangers, although they soon became familiar and some became friends later on, was quite an experience. Birthdays became a social event. Flat-mates, or room-mates, would get a cake and be in charge of the celebrations. They'd try their best to be as discrete as possible, but I would always have a hint. People would make or buy cards. Slapstick and naughty humour was overratedly enjoyed. It would be just guys and so things would invariably turn to topics that teenage guys talk about. We would just sit around cracking the vilest and dirtiest jokes we could come up with. They weren't really that dirty, but at that age, they seemed the end of the world. We would all go somewhere outside to have food. The place would not matter as we did not have much money to spend. The company was the only thing that mattered at those times. It is not common in India for people to have casual jobs, especially students. Never seen a kid work summers as a casual employee. Most would go work in a relative's shop. And they'd get gift money, not a salary. And so there was never any spending money in our pockets, even when we were 16 years old, and thought of ourselves as grown up and free, and we were not.
By the time I was 18, I was living in an apartment with 5 other guys. Two were my best friends. Being 18 is becoming an adult, and it was a big deal. A lot of imaginary doors start opening at that age. It was supposed to be special. But apart from saying that I was an adult from then on, nothing else felt special. I was still a teenager in my head, and celebrated my birthday like one. In India, teenage drinking is not a thing. The society, in all its orthodox and restrictive ways of the tradition, might just have resulted in a good thing for once. Even without the influence of alcohol, having fun never seemed lame. We still enjoyed ourselves silly. The kind of things that happened around birthdays back then were classically idiotic. We had a ritual that anyone turning 18 had to go to a pharmacy to buy a pack of condoms to symbolise that they had now turned into an adult. It felt scary and intimidating for a kid to walk into that store and demand a condom, especially in India. Silly things aside, there was a lot of good thoughtful things that took place as the years progressed. It was the first instance where friends reached out to other people they didn't know about, and only because you cared about them. It showed thoughtfulness, and there was maturity. It was a good departure from the birthday parties where everyone was invited to cause havoc under one roof.
I distinctly remember the birthday we celebrated for my best friend at that time. He had turned 18 two months before me, and was the first adult amongst us. The preparations had begun weeks earlier, and kept a top secret. We contacted every person that mattered to him, all of them, and asked them to write a letter for his birthday. That was the time when all of us were staying away from our homes and parents for the first time. We all had just overnight moved away from old friends and thrust into this place with strangers. A lot of people wrote back. Some wrote a few lines, others filled entire pages, front and back. We made it a point to not read any of them ourselves. For an eternally curious soul like myself, that was one tough thing to do. We put each letter in an unmarked envelope with nothing written on it. No clue as to what was inside or whom was it from. Then all those letters went into one giant packet, also unmarked. It was our own idea of a bag of surprises. We did not give the packet to him right away at the stroke of midnight. For dinner, we had gone to a pizza place that served unlimited pizza. For the poor and cheap kids like ourselves, that was manna from the heavens. We hogged every bit we could, and stuffed ourselves until we were fat turkeys, unable to move an inch. After having ice-cream, completely sated, while we sat around waiting for the bill, the server brought the packet on a tray and served it to our friend. I still remember the look of bewilderment on his face as he sat there looking at the thing placed in front of him. All our eyes, even the staff, we on him. He opened the packet and out fell all the other packets, and he was still clueless as ever, though even more surprised and bewildered.
Surprises are a big part of birthdays to the point that they have become the norm of it. If there is cake, it is a surprise. If there are gifts, they are a surprise. If there are people turning up, they are a surprise too. In that essence, what the surprises are and what they represent changes over time. Back when we were 18, surprises meant surprises, doing the unknown. It was simple. It did not have to mean anything. For a lot of people, it continues to be this way for the rest of their lives. When we reached home, I saw him tearing all those envelopes open, and reacting to each and every one of them because he absolutely did not know what was in them. And each one was a surprise. There was no pattern, there was no order. They were all random. The impact this had on me was profound. I realised that day that merely giving something extravagant was not enough. If I cared, I had to do more. I had to surprise the mind, the intellect. I had to tune them into an emotion of happiness. That's what a birthday surprise should be like.
The letter idea was a great success, and it was repeated by quite a lot of people. Strangely, the whole thing seems so simple and easy, and yet, there is something about communicating with letters that just draws the mind in. You find yourself reading those letters over and over again. It sticks around. The next year, when another friend had a birthday, I wrote her a book. It was more sort of a journal, containing various things about us. How we met, how we came close, and I think I wrote her a poem too. The act was more akin to giving a piece of me to her. It somehow felt more sharing than cutting cake and eating it together. We used to exchange letters before we met, our common friend acted as the postman. I still have them, and I find myself going over them once in a while. I wish we had continued. But as life is, we seem to have moved on in different directions.
During the undergrad years, the entire social dynamic changed. Old friends moved to different places, and I started hanging out with new classmates. Eventually after spending five years of sitting in the same class, doing the same assignments, and having lunch together everyday, the experience of doing it all together was something that brought all of us closer. It was in the final year that I had an amazing birthday. Friends planned it for a long time. It was a treasure hunt. I was blindfolded, my phone taken away from me, and then I was driven somewhere. By the time I could see again, I was at my friend's house. It was under construction, so no one was using it. I had clues, and I had gifts to find. I remember gobbling down every sweet treat coming my way. Chocolates. A water bottle, because I did not have a good one at the time. And at the top of the house was my girlfriend who had said she couldn't come celebrate because she couldn't get out of the house at night, but there she was. It was pure joy. Then she rushed me downstairs and there were friends, and a room lit completely by candles. It was magical. I was lost for words. I think that's one of the happiest moments I have ever felt. I knew then that this day was something I would remember for the rest of my life.
After I graduated, I moved to Ireland to pursue a Masters. Birthdays became quiet and simple. It was the age of Facebook, and I was a very public person. Everyone could see it was my birthday and wish me. I didn't give it much thought. Birthdays were days when I caught up with friends. The entire day went by chatting with people, whether it be on Facebook, or whatsapp, or even just via calls. I received gifts all the way from India. Cards with birthday messages in them. It felt good to be remembered.
This year, I changed my Facebook birthday from public to private, essentially hiding it from everyone. And it made a huge change in how the birthday went. I realised how much people depended on Facebook to remember birthdays, or to react to them. The birthday went surprisingly quiet. People did not wish me at all. New people did not wish me, true, but old friends forgot as well. Some intentionally, some accidentally. At first, I was immensely surprised - how could everyone forget a birthday. Not a single message on my timeline, except one from my maternal aunt, bless her. The few friends who remembered it and planned for it had not made it a public occasion, which was good. We had food, we had good alcohol, we talked a bit, then we slept. We woke up the next day, had breakfast, and came back to work. I worked till the evening, and then we had ice-cream. I went home and slept. The birthday went by peaceful and quiet. No phone calls, no messages, no surprises. The lack of anything happening was a surprise in itself.
A few friends wished in the common whatsapp group. I dislike that, I avoided using the word hate. I simply do not get the point of wishing in a group, the attitude and mentality seems to me of avoiding personal interactions, but being 'safe' by wishing in a social context. How infuriating! One friend called, and it was more of a catch-up call as it had been a while. It felt good to talk to someone, and she knew better than to go over the usual "So, what's special for today?" questions. Another friend sent a truly heartfelt message. She wrote it honestly, and I can say that because I've known her a long time. It would have been better if I could have spent the day with her in the tulip fields of Netherlands. But one can't get everything they want, can they? Surprising was the fact that in a social gathering, even whatsapp groups, people see others wishing but don't wish themselves. It is truly puzzling, and makes me curious with respect to the psychology that goes behind it. One friend I was waiting to hear from didn't wish, though I knew he remembered my birthday, but I kept dismissing it saying he'll probably call at the last minute. He didn't. It made me sad, but I decided to not think about it. He did call the next day though, and we had a long chat about what was happening in our lives. You understand how much the person cares about you by the quality of the conversation, and by how genuinely they tell you that they forgot. Honesty, that's a great quality.
Once all the birthday amusements were over, I realised how much of an adult I had just become. I knew when I talked with people after a few days, and mentioned the birthday I had last week, it would be no big deal. Usually, people in my lab celebrate a birthday with a cake. It didn't happen for me, but then, was it necessary? Do I have to depend on others to make my birthday special? I was utterly perplexed that day, and on the days that followed. A hint of sadness and disappointment later, I realised that all these years the only thing keeping the birthdays a happy occasion was myself believing it was so. With age, birthdays become more symbolic rather than the festival I had always thought them to be. It was quite surprising to note that people whom I had wished, or who were good friends, or someone I had gifted something on their birthday as a token of appreciation, simply forgot to wish me. Was I at fault here for making my birthday private on Facebook? The issue seemed very philosophical.
If I want others to remember and celebrate my birthday, I should have kept the birthday public. Since I did not, people would not remember it, and that should not be a surprise. Later on, if the date does come up, a lot of people would simply not react to hide the fact that they missed it, or they just don't care. In all of this, I found something I call the adult birthday. I always was surprised and curious to note that one of my friends, he's quite older than me (by a decade, not less), would not be enthusiastic about birthdays at all. This year, I finally agree with me. I'll happily trade a day full of messages and cakes and gifts for the few people who genuinely care enough to be there regardless of what day it is.
Dear self, welcome to the adult world.