In the six-odd years that I have been chaperoning my kid to birthday parties, I’ve figured that party-wise, there are broadly two kinds of city parents: those who approach their kids’ birthday parties with the same determination that soldier-ants take to gathering food, and those who, like the grasshopper in the folktale, simply outsource the stress.
The soldier-ant-type of parent (mostly the mother) frets, plans and slogs for the birthday party, tearing out her hair and getting irritable bowel syndrome in the process. Fathers are usually assistant-sloggers, perfect for random running around and sacrificing their pollution-weakened lungs to blow balloons.
The grasshopper-type parent, meanwhile, hands it all over to a new breed of professional — the event manager. Mum and dad make phone calls, sign a few cheques, and go for a film or a pedicure. The event manager gets everything from food and ‘games’ to return gifts.
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It’s weird, but both the grasshoppers and the soldier-ants take pride in their distinct parties. Stoically, the soldiers flaunt their small, home-made, parent-driven parties. The grasshoppers meanwhile take pride in the fact that their kids’ birthdays are large-scale, ‘exciting’ and more importantly, managed by the hired help. I’d like to state here that I’m a soldier-ant-mum, and I have my husband’s fatigued lungs to prove it.
Growing up in the ’70s, for us a birthday party meant paper plates, chips, a sandwich and a slice of lurid-looking cake. It meant money in an envelope pressed into the birthday kid’s hand. It meant some noise, some Rasna, and ok-tata-bye-bye. But in the Noughties, in globalised India, if it doesn’t hurt the wallet, it’s not just worth it.
Five parties out of the 10 we attend have one or more of the following:
- a bouncy castle which teeters close to the sky and looks downright scary
- glittery, eco-unfriendly, thermocol banners featuring sundry Disney Princesses/Spiderman/Ben 10 ‘cartoons’ which are supposed to define the party’s theme
- a young college student with an accent straight out of an Andheri East call centre as the Master of Ceremonies — my daughter calls this person ‘the manager’
- rehearsed performances by the birthday kid’s older sisters/cousins, featuring highly-sexualised Bollywood numbers — you cringe, but since the parents look like their child has just ended world hunger, you nod and say, ‘Verrrry nice…’
- a magic show (with frightened rabbits/doves) + a tattoo artist + a caricaturist + a hair braider-and-colourer (horrible chemical colours on your child’s head, but never mind)
- games that make your toes curl. Like ‘pick the dad with the biggest paunch’ or asking the birthday kid’s father to choose the best dancer among the assembled mummies, who obligingly shimmy for him
Recently, at a 4-year-old boy’s birthday party, after the professional clowns had romped on the stage, we were in for a hitherto unseen treat. The ‘manager’ invited the headmaster of the child’s playschool to ‘say a few words about the birthday boy’. The guests’ jaws dropped in unison. Listening to a speech in praise of someone who has just stepped out of diapers is a mildly surreal experience.
Then there are the return gifts. Caboodles of plastic crap, made in the dark by-lanes of Shenzhen, China. The bags, folders, water-bottles, tiffin-boxes and melamine-laced plate-and-spoon-sets are all given to kids who don’t really need more stuff. A rare, brave parent will sometimes risk popularity and give out potted plants or books.
It’s all meant to feel like a carnival, I guess, a mindless motion of money and ‘enjoyment’. In a perfect world, a birthday party wouldn’t be that, I think. It would mean experiencing something new and life-changing, something that truly celebrates a milestone. Learning about fish or butterflies, going to a farm, a nature walk or a fun session at the museum, or discovering a craft together. Till that happens, let’s aim at less wasteful, more conscious and aware birthday parties.
It’s a dirty job, but some-mum’s got to do it!
This appeared in the DNA of Sunday, July 24, 2011