It is probably the one song that every one of us has sung at one time or another. It goes: "Happy birthday to you, Haappy Birthdaaay to youuuu..." It is always sung with more rigour than rhythm, is often accompanied by shrieks of alcohol-fuelled laughter, and elicits much embarrassment from the person it is addressed to.
Unless, of course, the person in question is all of one year old and has absolutely no clue why several red-faced adults and a smattering of mud-streaked children are singing their guts out and beaming dementedly at him. In which case, the only sane reaction is to burst into loud tears and keep getting louder until the singing staggers to an end.
Well, that’s exactly what my friend’s son did at his first birthday party last month. But no, celebrations didn’t come to a crashing halt after his so-violently expressed displeasure. He was shushed up with a few mouthfuls of cake – every moment dutifully recorded on three video-cameras so that every angle could be covered – and then bundled off to bed while the rest of the party went on, well, partying.
But then, that’s the thing about first birthdays, isn’t it? They are less about the baby and more about the parents. And how could it be otherwise? The hapless child who is the centre of all the carousing has no idea what a birthday is, so how could he possibly comprehend that this is his first birthday party ever, a historic occasion that must be committed to digital memory and dug out to embarrass him for the rest of his life ("Oh look, that is you throwing up all over Dinesh Uncle! How cute!").
Yes, first birthday celebrations are all about the proud parents. And the party is about all their friends, child-free or otherwise, who are expected to turn up with impressive presents to justify the consumption of all that champagne and canapés. And the bewildered baby – who cannot work out why so many strangers are kissing him so enthusiastically and responds by crying, shrieking or projectile vomiting – is often just terribly in the way.
To be honest, this whole birthday party shebang is quite foreign to me. I grew up in a traditional Brahmin household where your birthdays were marked by a cold bath in the morning, followed by a puja and then a trip to the local mandir to make a ritual offering of four kinds of grain and six kinds of fruit. And I went to school in a strict convent where any kind of conspicuous consumption was looked down upon. So, the students were only allowed to distribute sweets to all their classmates at recess time and that, I’m afraid, was that.
So, this new-fangled culture where a lavish party is thrown every year to mark a child’s birthday, expensive gifts must be bought and equally expensive exchange presents given to departing guests (including, on one memorable occasion, an iPod – boy, was I stupid to miss that party!) is quite alien to me. The most I have ever managed in terms of celebrating my own birthday is a dinner out at a pricey restaurant with a core group of friends.
But while you could argue that all this hoopla is wasted on the very young, who have no clue what all the fuss is about, birthdays have certainly taken on an added importance in recent times. Parents try and find a new theme every year for their children’s birthday parties.
Significant birthdays like your 18th or your 21st have become occasions for over-the-top celebrations rather than a raucous night out with friends. And most surprising of all, even the women are quite willing to admit to turning 30 if they are sweetened by the promise of a big party and even bigger presents.
Of course, this kind of candour doesn’t last. By the time the big 4-0 begins to loom on the horizon, a lot more people have gotten a lot more reticent about their age – and hence their birthdays. On the whole, it is only those who are pleased with their progress through the decades, who have hit all those personal milestones of marriage, family, kids, big house in the suburbs and big fat bonus every year, who are willing to acknowledge in front of the world that they have hit their 40s. Those who haven’t quite made it tend not to draw attention to their failure by a big birthday bash.
For alpha males, 50 is the big one. This is the birthday that calls for an all-out splash. They are now at the height of their earning capacity so they can afford to shell out for friends and family to travel to some exotic resort to party for three days and two nights.
And more often than not, that’s exactly what they do.
Women hovering around that marker tend to sublimate their desire for a big party into throwing the mother of all celebrations for their better halves. Rare is the woman – in fact, I can only think of one in my own circle – who draws attention to hitting 50 by hosting a blow-out for her friends.
But once these sensitive markers have been crossed, in my experience, everyone tends to get a little more relaxed about their age. By the time you are 60 or even 70, given the achievement inherent in reaching that age, you want to celebrate with all your loved ones around you.
And as for the lucky ones who get to hit the decades beyond that, surely the least they deserve is one good party.