Our birthdays, or to put it technically correct, birth anniversaries (because everybody has only one birthday but several birth anniversaries) , are not celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, but according to Malayalam calendar. There are twelve months according to Malayalam calendar, too. The first month, Chingam, falls during August–September. Most of the occasions, such as birth or death anniversaries, are celebrated according to Malayalam stars (nakshatra). There are 27 stars. I was born on Karthika star of Karkatakam month (July–August).
There was nothing like a birth certificate those days. I don’t think we even used to inform the village/panchayat office of child births. When we were admitted to school, the date of birth as told by the parent at the school, five years after the birth of the child, became the date of birth on records. No birth certificate was required for admission to schools. So, difference of a few days was very common. The parents sometimes used to think a declare that the child was born 'three days after the temple festival was concluded', or 'eight or ten days after my nephew got married'! It was then for the headmaster to calculate and arrive at some approximate date!
In my case the difference is only two days, but in my wife Jayasree’s case, the difference is five months! Not only date of birth, every other details were registered as informed verbally by the person who takes the child to school for admission. For example, my elder brother, elder sister, and I were admitted to the school by our maternal uncle. He gave the house name as ‘Pothoppuram’ which has been recorded in the case of all of us. But my younger sister was taken to school by father for admission, and he gave the house name as ‘Thurakkoor’, which is the original name of our house. So while three of us belong to Pothoppuram house, our younger sister belongs to Thurakkoor house! (In villages in Kerala, each house has a name and is known by that name.) Those were the days when people trusted people. Now paper document is trusted, and not people or their words.
When I was six years
When I was a small boy I looked forward to my birthdays. The celebrations were never very elaborate. Occasionally we used to invite relatives who stayed nearby. These were not norms, but exceptions. The celebrations were more religious and ritualistic than social. (Now such occasions have gone two steps ahead from religious to social and further to commercial.) The concept of birthday gifts was non-existent and unheard of. The days were, however, festive, of course. One most enjoyable and welcome fact was, we did not have to go to school that day. Wow! What else do you need to celebrate the day! The next day, however, we had to give an application signed by parents telling that it was due to the child’s birthday that he/she had been absent the previous day.
One important and essential custom was to go and pray at the family temple. We used to do special poojas (offerings) on that day such as paayasam (cooked rice mixed with melted jaggery). Special delicacies were prepared for lunch. Another important feature was we would have chor (water-drained rice) unlike normal days when we had porridge. (Mind you, our porridge had no similarity with Wikipedia’s porridge. Ours was rice cooked in a lot of water. We used to consume the rice and water together.)
At lunch time, the birthday boy sits cross-legged on the floor preferably facing east. A plantain leaf is kept in front of him on which the feast would be served. A lighted oil lamp (the religious type – nilavilakku in Malayalam) is kept in front of him. The lamp represents Lord Ganesh. Between the lamp and the plantain leaf, another smaller plantain leaf is placed in perpendicular to the other leaf. This is for the Lord. Each item of the feast is first served to Lord Ganesh, and then to the birth day boy. It is believed that the Lord accepts and consumes the feast.
When I am (nearly) 60 years
After shifting to Delhi, these rituals became things of the past. I usually did not even remember my birthdays. Mother used to write that my birthday (the Malayalam date) falls (or fell) on so and so date. Later when mother shifted to Delhi with me, she used to remind me every year. We together used to go to the temple for darshan. Then my marriage happened and Jayasree too started keeping account of the dates. But there were no celebrations as such. The maximum we did was to go to the temple and pray and have some offerings. In the evenings (because usually birthdays fall on working days) Jayasree used to make paayasam. That is all. No cake-cutting, no ‘happy birthday to you’s. No parties, candle-light or whatever.
Our children’s birthdays were, however, different when they were young. At home sometimes their friends were invited. We used to have small parties where cake was cut. In school it was kind of mandatory to celebrate. They used to wear civil dress (they were exempt from wearing uniform that day). They were also supposed to give gifts to the class teacher and all class mates. Initially it used to be toffees, which later graduated to pens and other items. A few months ago it was reported in newspapers (I read the Times of India, New Delhi) that now teachers are given large colour TVs, DVDs, high-end mobile phones, I-phones, and other costly electronic items, and even tickets for foreign trips, etc. by some parents!
How the time has changed! I have never given any gift to any teacher, nor did any teacher expect any. That concept was unheard of and unthinkable during my school days. The teacher–student relation then was cordial, respectful, and almost similar to relations between parents and children. The pupils respected and loved their teachers like their own parents and the teachers loved the pupils like their own children. The teachers’ only expectation from pupils was high marks in examinations, and not foreign trips or colour TVs! Every field, every institution, and every mind has since been commercialized. What a tragedy!
My birthday this month
My birthday this year was, however, different. The basic reason is that I am working with Niyogi Books. I have very cordial and good colleagues here. Another reason was that most of them are Bengalis and they look for the slightest pretext to have parties. (They themselves admit that Bengalis are ‘foodies’.) So I deliberately remembered my birthday this year, and treated them to snacks. For this I requested the help of Mr Nandy who is an expert in arranging parties. If Mr Nandy is not present (he goes on tour frequently) and if we had to organise a party, we are nearly lost. (These days, of course, Shaurya and Siddhartha have been trying to fill the gap.) I treated them a day in advance because that was Shiny’s last day at Niyogi Books.
The next day my editorial colleagues surprised me by organising a bigger party to wish me a ‘happy birthday’. Also, Shaurya gifted me with a biography of S. Balachander written by Vikram Sampath. Shaurya, himself a published poet, wrote a poem for me in the book. Even at the fear of being accused of self-glorification, I dare reproduce the poem here. Take the poem with not one, but several pinches of salt. If two people are in romantic relation with each other, they see only the good part of the other. The same happens with somebody you appreciate, respect, or even follow (for example, political leaders). And if you hate somebody, you see only the bad part of him or her (like the opposition and ruling parties). It is human nature.
I thank Shaurya and other colleagues for the affection they have shown to me.
Joyful by nature, quiet in his demeanor
An intelligent man with an observant eye
You are someone whose qualities I admire
Always staying calm, whatever the situation or hour
Noise all round rarely disturbs you
Times ticks by but you seldom stop working
Having biscuits, lunch and dalia in the evening
A sincere person with integrity and words few
Never ever refusing to help, a genuine human being
Prose, poetry, editing or indexing, your work speaks for you
King of your clan, we all wish a happy birthday to you