Saturday, March 21, 2009


Sorry for the diversion into dark and sweet (and forbidden) chocolate territory.

When I was young, birthdays were celebrated at home in the evenings. The pampered ones had balloons and streamers put up on the walls (with a glittery golden cutout HAPPY BIRTHDAY in the background) and specially baked cakes with frosted icing (shaped like Mickey Mouse or a house in the woods or a cricket pitch - this was before the invasion of Cartoon Network), which would arrive in a white box from some shop (strictly untouchable with an invisble handle-with-care sign).

Being a more frugal sort, we neglected the wall decoration bit and concentrated on the food - not 'ordered from out' but home-made. Maa and Didia (my intrepid cousin) would bake two round cakes with holes at the centre in the trusty Murphy oven. They (the cakes, not the oven) would be full of bits of cherries, petha (a white candied bottlegourd), and kismis (raisins). One cake would remain plain and plump brown (this was held in reserve for second servings) but the other one, meant to be displayed and cut, would be decorated with white icing sugar, mixed and poured through a paper cone. My Didia's painstaking effort in writing my name on the cake would usually result in illegible semi-transparent squiggles on top of the cake. She moped, but we were happy because we got to break off the stiff pieces of icing sugar and suck them even before the cake was cut.

A few of my close friends in the neighbourhood (Mampi and Soma, Sujata and Sonali, with their plaits and pigtails neatly combed and oiled for the occasion) would come, as would my cousin J and her family. I would go ooh and aah over the gifts [faking my surprise, because they had all told and 'consulted' me before buying the gifts - pens and pencil boxes, a jhola/shoulder-slung-bag, crayons and water-colour sets, Amar Chitra Katha-s (comics about Indian history and mythology), inexpensive Bengali storybooks]. One grand present (costing the princely amount of Rs. 40) was a Tintin comic-book given by my Dida (mother's mother) on my tenth birthday - it occupied the pride of place in my bookcase for a long, long time.

The cake-cutting would be a swift and perfunctory affair, with some half-hearted attempts at singing the birthday song (I suspect many of my friends and family were uncomfortable with all that singing in English). The gusto would be reserved for the food.

There would be hot just-fried luchis (puris/ fried hand-made flour pancakes), alurdom (potato-curry) and chicken-curry, followed by the cake ( a nod to our colonial heritage) and payesh (rice cooked in sweetened condensed milk - a traditional Bengali birthday treat).

I remember a certain birthday when the payesh was replaced by a complicated caramel custard (from a recipe in Chic - a popular 'women's' magazine which was diligently devoured by Ma and Didia). My grandparents were slightly dismayed at this deviation from tradition, but everyone else enjoyed the novelty. Later on, in the nineteen-eighties, when Chinese cooking was making incursions into Bengali cuisine and long blue packets of egg-noodles were showing up on grocers' shelves, the luchis were replaced by chicken-chowmein-Bengali-style. But it was all still cooked at home. And after eating (surely the focal point of all Bengali celebrations), the grown-ups would settle down to a round of adda (conversation, often extremely animated) while we kids would be left to play (and sometimes fight) on our own. Unsupervised by any DJs or event-managers or hired men in grotesque Mickey-Mouse-looking-like-Gorilla costumes.

In these hard times, maybe it would make a lot of sense to revert to those simpler celebrations of yore.



Peter Rozovsky said...

This is not quite what you're getting it, but I do have an observation on how children's birthday parties have changed.

In my middle-class youth, young children's birthdays were celebrated at home and friends invited over for a party that often included a theme: cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, or the like. Occasionally a party might venture out of the home to a local bowling alley.

Nowadays, the process has been professionalized. More and more, parents pay to have parties hosted outside the home at restaurants and play and party centers of all kinds that specialize in such things. I'm not sure this particular manifestation of American-style consumer-capitalist ingenuity is all to the good.
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

sukku said...

Thanks for sharing your birthday's been awhile since we had any party at home but I usually take the family out for dinner...a very quiet affair that is when I am around for their birthday from Overseas...had been away for the past 6 years...but now since I am back...let's see what I would do...but eldest boy is in Moscow...and the younger boy would leave for overseas by next when I am looks like it's their turn to be away from me...

SGD said...

We still celebrate our AD's birthday at home in Kolkata amidst grandparents, aunts, uncles & cousins. The birthdate being in and around Pujo ensures that on two of her three birthdays we are amidst family.
I'm too old fashioned to like the commercialised impersonal birthday parties I have to accompany AD to where the children instead of playing the various party games, sit at one place watching the magic shows or puppet shows before proceeding to the high tea/dinner.

Anonymous said...

celebrations & city-tour & movie.

lopamudra said...

I have celebrated my daughters' birthdays both at home and outside party centers.They both have their own charm but I do prefer the party centers where I don't have to lift a finger!

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks for sharing all your birthday memories.

my space said...

well i had similar birthdays..we had chola bhatura, paani batashe(golgappa), gulab jamun, wafers and rasna..for years!! and these paper streamers and balloons that were lauki (bottle gourd) shaped!! And most wld wrinkle and deflate before the party began!!
well i prefer to have it outside fr my children but this year i had it 'home style ' fr my daughter n she claims it was her bestest birthday ever!!!