The birthday party

Yesterday it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
— Paul Simon, ‘Have a Good Time’

I turned a year older this week. And wiser, wilder, bewildered?
A dash of all the above maybe, I don’t know. What I do know though is that, thanks to the press, I relish the reminder of a little bit of history blessing my very first birthday. Currently on display at my Bandra alma mater are artefacts from Pope Paul VI’s visit to Bombay on December 2, 1964. The exhibition commemorates the inaugural Papal mass on Indian soil at the Eucharistic Congress hosted here.

Suddenly I hear the birthday beat everywhere. Joining the refrain is ‘Happy Birthday Sunita’ that we’ve just seen staged at the Experimental Theatre. In which Shabana Azmi richly layers the role of a woman finding personal fulfilment even as she tries to make memorable her dysfunctional daughter’s fortieth birthday.

It also chances that this month my book club happens to read Birthday Stories by Haruki Murakami. Every episode an adroit snapshot of life on the single day that asks, what will your birthday bring – a leaping glimpse of the future, an echo of the imperfect past? Or a cry from that callow time the three words ‘The Birthday Party’ meant you’d discovered the deep, dark silences of a Pinter play.

Cruel to kind, sad to glad, surreal to real... Who hasn’t felt the sweaty panic of being seized by disquieting introspection in the midst of merriment? Like eerily stepping out of your skin, strangely looking in on a jolly crowd. With thoughts lots less in sync with the swinging revelry. That’s not as depressing as it sounds. In fact, it is inviting, illuminating, invigorating. Listen. An almost edifying epiphany strikes. 

It’s impossible to recall such bell-clanger moments marking one’s own first party. But clarion calls from your children’s celebrations ring surprisingly clear. Defining, if fleeting, Aha minutes that can cause a crippling mental freeze. Yet you cover up, continuing to clap when the cake is cut, balloons burst and reedy voices sing ‘Hap Hap Happy Birthday’.

My toddler touched 1 year around the anniversary of searing, serial bomb blasts that ripped the city from stock exchange to suburbs. Haunted and daunted then, like ten million others, I was weighed down with negativity enough to sink into a terrible torpor. Fear of a no-more-nameless dread in no-more-innocent Mumbai. Gripped by the belief that it would somehow be wrong bringing another child into a world gone riot-roused mad.

It took my lovely Bengali maid Laila to put things in perspective. Gently she explained I was going through angst which should pass – and whispered a softly cadenced line. Tagore, she said with shining native pride. It translated as ‘Every child comes with the message that God has not yet despaired of man.’ That brief eloquence done, she scooped our birthday boy in a hug to beat all bear hugs. Till his grin grew bigger than the beaming loopy smile of a red knitted clown he clutched. A present he adored for long after, a sight that stayed with me for as long after. Going on to have a warmly welcomed beautiful second baby, I tend to think of any birthday party, for young or old, as special. Knock it not. Each one is life affirming. How we need that now.

Meher Marfatia is the author of 10 books for children and two for parents. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at:

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