What The Birthday Gods Delivered
Whenever I go to my Nani’s house in Karachi for lunch, at the entry, I see framed in all its glory a photo of a concerned child, 1 or 2 years of age, being held in my khala’s arms. The birthday celebration was held at the Karachi Boat Club, a British Colonial era remnant setup in 1881 along the mangroves that ran through the city.
From then onwards I remember a couple of birthdays at my own house in Karachi. All the usual suspects were there (my school friends from the age of 3 onwards) hanging off the merry-go-rounds brought in for the day to cater to the needs of us mischievous young kids. The food was textbook birthday fodder; chips, sandwiches, jelly, juice boxes, and cake. There was also the local twist: pakoras, samosas, and patties, some of the best greasy afternoon staples Pakistan had to offer for clogged arteries but satiated souls.
When it came to cutting the cake, I wanted my best friends by my side. Friends were friends, and they were allowed an audience at the cake-cutting table, but the best friends needed to be shoulder to shoulder, cutting my cake with me, either holding the knife together, or butchering the cake in unison. The instant sugar rush that followed earned the merry-go-rounds their days remaining rent, and just as the sun began to set, my parents struck with perfect timing; placing goodie bags in my friends’ hands as their parents came to get them. As my distracted friends were traversing the lining of the bag to see what the birthday Gods had delivered, they were ushered into their cars. When they finally realized their goody bags weren’t up to their built-up expectations (they never were), they were already halfway home and no amount of pleading with their parents could change the scenario.
Then there was the McDonald’s birthday trend. Uncle Sam had muscled his way into the Karachi youth’s minds, and a Happy Meal and rides on colorful slides were the dream in the late 90s. I didn’t have one, but I was invited to one. It was an utter disappointment. Maybe 10 years later, when the experience would have been more novel or the food more comforting, it would it have been more fitting.
The next set of birthdays I remember happened in Australia. I had recently introduced some of my friends to Bollywood films, claiming ancestral lineage to Shahrukh Khan among the other Khan’s which dominated the Mumbai movie scene (little did they know there were millions of us Khans). They took a liking to these movies, and I decided that I would take them to see a recent flick I had just watched myself. I wanted to show them we weren’t all taxi drivers who ran convenience stores by night. We had interests, and they were open to my friends as well, courtesy of movie subtitles.
This birthday, however, got off on the wrong foot. My mother, an avid believer in paper maps over sat navs, made an uncharacteristic error. I was livid, lecturing her in the car as my friends and I spent the first 20 minutes of the movie driving with her, trying to find the cinema. The audacity I showed that day was something I reflected on greatly in the coming year, when I was ripe to do so. She picked my friends up from their homes, drove us halfway across town for the movie, left us there for 3 hours, came back to get us, and then dropped my friends to their respective homes. Somehow, I had overlooked that, and only noticed the 20 minutes she’d lost, making us late for the film. I acted brashly that day, as I felt my reputation as one to provide high-quality birthdays was at stake.
Years later, when I went to college, I spent my birthdays away from my family. The close friends would call, keeping the conversation short (due to international calling rates) but sweet and melancholic. The people who were invited to my birthdays decades ago would message, maybe because we had known each other for years and would see each other again eventually, or because they were invested in the relationship through multiple generations (not only were our parents' friends, but sometimes, our siblings were as well).
Growing up, birthdays were an institution, something to look forward to every year. Their content, context and trajectory changed greatly as I grew up, but their ability to create a memorable narrative never did. The older I get, the more I see how intangible they have become. A moment of reflection, but that is all. No merry-go-rounds or movie theatres have been financed for the day, but there is a remembrance and an odd form of respect. For a certain day a year, for many years, I had been a critical part of my friend’s experiences and resultant memories.
Everything seemed so straight forward, novel and fascinating back then, maybe because we didn’t have the ability to critique or question, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
When I get those calls, messages and visits on my birthday, I love sitting back and reflecting with my friends about the previous birthdays of mine (and birthdays of theirs that I’ve attended), etched into our memories, which we’ll never forget. They were simpler days, and days to reflect on once a year, amongst the chaos that life now throws at us.
*Nani: maternal grandmother