Thursday, March 5, 2009


When we were young, birthday celebrations had a pre-determined pattern that was much anticipated long before the day itself. For instance, if you were born in February (as I was), you could officially start counting the days and salivating in anticipation from 1st February itself (like I did).

First of all, there was the BIRTHDAY DRESS to be decided upon. No going out and buying from the shops for me. Maa (my mother) and Didia (my cousin) would decide upon a suitable pattern from a sewing book, I would be taken along to buy the dress material and then Maa would make it at home. I was too thrilled and tongue-tied at the entire exercise to offer any choice of my own.

Then, unless one was extremely unfortunate and the birthday fell on a holiday, Maa would purchase a big plastic bag full of toffees to take to school to share with my classmates. (Anything more than simple toffees was disallowed in my school, unlike in today’s schools where students often gift their classmates anything from CD-ROMs to expensive stationery sets). We usually got sugar-boiled candies or sticky toffees, even the 50 paise worth Cadbury’s Eclairs were given only by the affluent-elite nose-turned-up few.

Other preparations would be on in full swing, setting off an agony of expectations in me, which would increase so much that it would almost impossible to go to sleep the night before my birthday.

The great day would dawn and I would jump out of bed, vibrating with excitement. The ritual was to touch the feet of all the elders in the house (and there were plenty of them in my joint-family). I would dip down and bounce up several times, collecting blessings for the coming year.

A rushed-through-bath and a gobbled-breakfast later, I would be ready for school, not in my usual uniform, but in my brand new ‘colour dress’ which would make me the cynosure of all eyes at school. In the assembly during morning prayers, everybody would go nudge-nudge, whispering about the lucky one whose birthday it was. Oh, the thrill to be noticed and talked about. The trick, though, was not to be too obvious about it all; you had to pretend to be matter-of-fact while secretly walking on Cloud 9. But you could have your eyes saucer-shining and have a spill-any-moment-smile on your face.

Almost bursting with self-importance, I would give sweets (Parle’s orange boiled-sugar candies, my inexpensive favourites) to my classmates (trying to cheat a bit by giving more to my best friends) and then go to the other classrooms and staffroom to give the teachers and Principal (no wonder most of the teachers were overweight – the combined offerings of all the students all year round must have been huge). I would return, the victorious queen, to my class where everybody would stand up and sing loud-and-lustily, though sometimes indistinctly-through-toffee-sucking-mouths, “Happy Birthday to You”.

When we were in Class V (Fifth Standard), our class-teacher hit upon the idea of making a list of all our birthdays, collecting one rupee from each student (apart from the birthday boy/girl, of course), and gifting the birthday child something. I got a plain-jane stainless steel dish with my name inscribed under it. This might seem to be a paltry gift in this age of Conspicuous Spending, but in that simpler age the yet-to-be-devalued one rupee purchased a lot of joys for us.



Pradip Biswas said...

I was mostly brought up in Hostels and prefered to keep my birthday very secret as it used to mean beatings by friends and wellwishers. Just before a week I used to visit sick room to avoid the beatings.

ugich konitari said...

" had to pretend to be matter-of-fact while secretly walking on Cloud 9......."

Everything you wrote about what exactly the way it was when I was in school (maybe a generation before you?). The stuff about simple candies only allowed, the business of going importantly out of the class to the staff room to distribute the sweets to the teachers, the "color dress".....Oh what a wonderful post....brought back so many memories...

Kavi said...

belated birthday wishes !!

Wonderfully written. Brought back many memories.

One of which is this incident.

A classmate with 'colour dress' walks upto the teacher with a box of chocolates, and says, 'today is my happy birthday'

The teacher corrects him : "today is your birthday. If it will be happy or not, i will decide' !!

That was an English teacher. And i have always remembered that !!


Aleta said...

How did we celebrate birthdays at school? Your question had me spinning back in time and I come up empty handed! We never celebrated birthdays in school. I have many wonderful birthday party memories given by my parents, but nothing to share about school.

I loved reading about your experience!

SGD said...

A rush of memories...we called it the 'party dress'.
In our school, party dress on birthdays was allowed only upto Class III (or was it ClassII??). And yes the toffee gifts on birthdays are oh so familiar...
So less of materialism but so much more of excitement, anticipation, eagerness.
I guess it isnt about you or me...the society was was not about flaunting one's (or one's parents) wealth.
Birthday parties were held at friends' homes and not at McD's and Pizza Huts like my daughter's friends' parties are.
The material divide amongst the super rich and the middle / upper middle class was not so distinct!

Lovely lovely post....

seanag said...

I really don't remember birthdays being celebrated in school. It does seem like parents were always bringing in cupcakes, but I think these were for holidays and more general special events.

I don't know what your Part II birthday post will be, but this reminds me that there were a lot of school-related afterschool birthday parties. I never had a big party myself, and most didn't, but there were always a few full class ones, and have this vague memory of one where it seemed we weren't invited and my friends and I getting all in a huff, only to discover that there was some surprise aspect or something and the parents had known about it all along. My memory is that I ended up going, under parental coercion, and my friend didn't. But, like so much else, I could have this wrong.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks everybody, for recalling the joys of your past birthdays, at school or elsewhere...

Mampi said...

Wow, what a trip down the memory lane.
We almost had similar rules in schools.
But yes, my kids school doesnt allow any gifts or fancy birthday stuff. They are allowed to distribute simple candies only.