“Aaji, when is your birthday?”
The question was innocuous enough, though it was the first time I had asked it of my grandmother.
“I don’t really know” she replied. Probably driven by the incredulous look dawning on my face, she added, “Aga, no one really bothered to keep track of these things when we were young. I had other siblings too, and in any case, everyone was too busy to think of celebrating birthdays.”
This remark was incredible to me. I was about 13 then, and had had a lovely birthday just a month ago. Birthdays were special! They involved cake, first and foremost, which is a luxury I treasure even today. It was also about the friends who came over, the noise, the games, the love, and always, the wonderful food. It was just such a lovely day to have every year. You were special for those twenty four hours. You were not just the center of attention, but people seemed genuinely happy that you were born.
Well, maybe that was related more to the food and the return presents, but still, it was good to feel all of it for that brief little window.
I may have been projecting my own feelings on her, but I think I noticed a tinge of regret in Aaji’s words.
The life of a woman in the 1930s in India was probably a challenging life, in any case. However, she was always full of stories and laughter. She told me many tales of her childhood. They were enchanting and evocative of a time I had never known, but I could almost understand when I imagined it through her words.
When I was little and sitting in rapt attention listening to her stories, I understood that her life had been stripped of luxuries.
She portrayed herself as a very ordinary little girl through her childhood, who seemed to be surrounded by colorful characters and incidents. She was loved as a child and in turn, loved all her children, especially her grandchildren. When I was little and sitting in rapt attention listening to her stories, I understood that her life had been stripped of luxuries. She had a comfortable married life, but by then her husband and the children were the centers of her universe. I doubt she had ever spent a day where it was all about her.
In retrospect, I realize that after that moment of incredulity, I just shrugged my shoulders and went back to reading my Famous Five book.
A few days later, on the 13th of January, that year, I was excited at the prospect of Sankranti (Maharashtrian spring festival, also see: “kites” and “tilgul”) around the corner, and that night was Lohri night (A north Indian, especially Punjabi, spring festival that involves bonfires, songs, and good food).
I celebrated Lohri with my closest friends, who were a Punjabi family of five sisters, and had a lot of fun. We sat around talking, singing, and laughing till the bonfire died down. It was time to go home, and it sucked.
But I needn’t have worried. My five Punjabi friends are the souls of any party and one of their major philosophies in life is to keep any party going as long as they can. We decided to shift venues and head on over to my house. Aaji was there, as well as Maa, and these girls genuinely loved hanging out with them both. We tramped home and brought the festive spirit with us. Since it was festival time, Maa was indulgent with us, and soon we were talking up a storm and laughing around in our living room, though it was quite late at night. Aaji loved being with these girls too and she was in the midst of it all, laughing and making her own jokes to match them.
The prospect of cake on top of what had already been an evening of indulgence, didn’t bother us in the least.
My parents are both doctors and worked amazingly long hours then. Dad came home tired, and was amused to find us lounging around and happily chattering. He had an air of a conjurer to him then, and with a flourish he revealed that he had a cake with him! One of his patients had given him a ‘thank you’ cake and he had brought it home to what looked like a very apt occasion. The prospect of cake on top of what had already been an evening of indulgence, didn’t bother us in the least.
While Maa and I were taking down the plates and cutlery, I suddenly thought about my conversation with Aaji earlier. And I decided, “there’s cake, why shouldn’t there also be a birthday?!”
I mentioned this to the collected, and everyone enthusiastically agreed that we should celebrate Aaji’s birthday. Aaji herself was pretty bemused by the prospect, but went along with it. We had a proper cake cutting ceremony and sang “Happy Birthday” for Aaji. She soon caught up with the infectious joy that my friends and I were feeling, and was happy and smiling for the rest of the night. It felt right that she had this little ceremony for herself. She had this little evening, when she was surrounded by young children who loved her and wanted to celebrate her life.
That evening ended as all evenings, even the best, have to. Sankranti followed, and then school, and then the daily life of a 13 year old. My days were filled with Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, my cassette player, homework, tests, and lots of evenings of play. Aaji spent some time with us and then went back to live with my uncle and Ajoba (grandfather) in Nagpur. Days passed quickly and a year went by without any real effort.
On the 13th of January the following year, I called Aaji and wished her a ‘Happy Birthday’. It was nice to be able to do that, and I heard some genuine joy in her voice at being remembered.
We’ve celebrated her birthday on the 13th of January ever since. All my family has adopted the tradition. And it feels great, when every year after I wish her, she tells me with pride, how they had a little celebration. All for her.