November 23, 2011

Today, the 23rd of November, seems to be the date of birth of a lot of people known to me. My dear friend Raji, my well-loved nephew Govind in New York, my cousin Jaishree in Whitefield….and Govind’s great-grandmother, too, who’s past the 95 mark, I think…this lady’s now no longer oriented to time and place, alas, and is being cared for devotedly by her daughter (Govind’s grandmother) who, herself, is in her late 70’s.

And the daughter of my good friends Geetha and Prasanna is also celebrating her first birthday, and her naming ceremony, today. I called up Jaishree, and messaged Govind on Facebook (to which he promptly replied!)…and will be calling Govind’s grandmother, Vacchimma, in a while…and will be visiting Raji with other friends in the afternoon.

But I realize that birthdays mean many things to many people…and are, sometimes devoid of any meaning at all. KM, for example, accepts good wishes, but in his family, birthdays are not big occasions to be celebrated or highlighted. I too grew up in a similar culture…the only time I’ve ever had a birthday party was on my 50th birthday, when we invited as many friends as we could, and had a very enjoyable time.

I know someone who, on his birthday, got the news of his brother’s death in a traffic accident…certainly, to him, the date of birth is likely to bring very mixed memories, and it can never be a day of unalloyed joy.

Indeed, another of my friends (whose birthday falls the day after mine!) has requested that I don’t wish him at all. “I don’t want a reminder that I am getting older!” is his opinion.

How we celebrate birthdays, too, varies widely. Traditionally, in my community, the date of birth (being the “English date”) is not observed at all, but the date on which the “birth star” falls (according to the lunar calendar) is a day when, perhaps, some sweet is made in the house, and the child is taken to the temple. In Kerala, many people traditionally would have an “Ayush hOmam” every year, a sacrificial rite conducted with fire as the witness.

Nowadays, of course, the cake-chips-samosa-pepsi parties, with games and “return gifts” seem to be the order of the day, and I find mothers increasingly harassed over the details…we even seem to hire “decoration experts” whose expertise, sometimes, just seems to extend to blowing up large balloons all over the venue of the party! Junk food seems to be the popular fare at birthday parties and that’s not a very welcome trend.

One of my elderly aunts remarked, as she watched a birthday child puff out the lighted candles: “ In our culture, lighting a flame is considered auspicious, now we have everyone blowing it out!” It did make me think!

But cake-and-ribbons or not, many of us celebrate birthdays….especially those of children, because it is certainly an achievement for the child to survive this harsh world and complete another year of existence. For an adult, too, perhaps, the date of birth should be a reminder, not of advancing age and creeping mortality…but of what is past…the fact the one has withstood the ravages of Time and Fate, and successfully covered another journey around the Sun!

So…I’m off to celebrate several birthdays…and to enquire about the old lady who is awaiting a merciful release, too… what a mixed bag this world of ours is!