The Case Against Birthday Celebrations: Part 2- Cakes and Gifts

The Cake

It was her 25th birthday. She was pacing around the apartment the whole morning, laughing louder than usual. That evening, my flatmate stretched over the coffee table to give the phone to me. While she giggled in the background, I focused on my toes to listen. It was a man’s voice.  “I am her friend from college. Last year no, there were 3 cakes on her birthday. Can you also buy 3 cakes for her this year? She will feel happy.” Now, now. If this was a kids terminal disease department, I would have gladly rushed to the store to buy 10 cakes. But really? Do I need to buy 3 cakes for a 25 yr old that I know for a month because her friend in India wants her to be happy? Can she even eat 3 cakes? There is absolutely nothing practical about cakes. Eating the Rs 400 cake from 'CAKE ‘n’ CRAPPY’ is like winning Miss Thane award. A sweet award whose glory lasts but for 2 days, with no professional or nutritional value beyond that. You can’t even eat more than 10% of a cake. I also question the quality of that Rs 400 cake bought from BAKE n CRAPPY shop situated in a shady lay-packet-littered street. Behind the glass cover of their display, I can swear there are crawling ants that emerge at night, like the scorpions in The Mummy movie. What do you even put in a Rs 400 cake? I would rather eat a Rs 1200 cake from JW Marriot because at least it’s heavy and tastes like they mean it.  Eating cheap cakes are just as impractical as buying them. In the indian corporate world, birthday celebrations is a big thing. (In the US, it's not a thing at all). In Delhi, the young office people in my office would buy 1 cake per birthday in office. Even if you failed at probability 101, you can calculate the number of cakes needed per day for a team of 100. Also predict the disruption it caused at 4:00 pm during cake cutting time. “Didi, we won’t cut it, till you come, didi” they would tell me. Ok I admit it’s very sweet…. Err, actually it’s really really sweet of them. But still, I’m doing birthday bashing in this post, so I will continue. Soon the accounting office send a mailer “Please don’t spend money on cakes every day”. In olden India, special days were celebrated with a diya, a pooja and a taste of a sweet mithai. There was no such thing as a birthday cake. Today it is a compulsory addition to any birthday. To me, it seems like an unnecessary British tradition. The cake business an 18 cr business growing by 15% per year, which I imagine being controlled by some invisible lobby with AK-47 protected leaders. There is the drug lobby, nicotine lobby… and i’m adding cake lobby, birthday card lobby and party decoration lobby to that list. What permanent value addition does a cake, card or party decoration add to your life? Think and let me know. Imma finish my latte till then.  Yeah, I know, I know. 'Why not?' you say. What we love about cake cutting is not so much the cake, but the act of cutting the cake. The focus is on you. There is a thing or two about an off-key background song, blowing the candles, and cutting the cake. Resulting in a predictable but exciting climax where your celebrators are cheering once the candle go off, and the cake is smashed into your face. And this is why people want birthdays. This breeds the unhealthy dependency on external forces to stay happy. Go to Part 1 to read about this dependency. The Gifts

In the busy, bustling, densely-populated suburb of Sunnyvale, I became part of this group of 12 friends, who always did birthday midnight cake ‘surprises’ for each other. We'd also put $20 each towards a gift. The topic of unfairness emerged one day. Married couples were getting 2 gifts per house and the single ones contributed double. This became an unbalanced sum game. There was another group of girls, where we’d all gift each other $50 gift cards on our birthdays. This became a Zero sum game. Now does all this make a special gift? It’s a zero sum game. Hello! Wake up. This is just optics! Gifts are a dangerous territory. They can make you look like a richie rich or a kanchoos cheapo. You can’t gift someone too much or too little. Neha, the fake human in Part 1, got a gift from a girl she knew only for a few months. Neha was given a $80 perfume and a $40 necklace. ‘Thank you! But I can't take something so expensive’, Neha pushed back. Now, Neha can’t gift back the girl a $20 chocolate on her birthday. No! She will have to match up to a $100 gift. Awkward. Isn’t $100 too expensive for a new friendship? Doesn’t it over-run the friendship level? This gift giving business runs into a score-settling game.  What's the alternative? Like we said in Part 1, It’s difficult to move away from birthday expectations. We can’t just suddenly change as a society. It has to be a movement. A full generation has to come out of it. So there has to be a transition strategy.  The old Indian way of celebrating anything would be to bring in genuinely positive thoughts and energy, by the means of blessings and pooja. Notice, other than the diya and kumkum, everything else is non-material. No cake, no dinner. Just plain simple wishes. From whom? Acquaintances? No. Family and close friends.  But even if you take blessing and do a toned down birthday, there might be a small want for a special thing to happen to you.  So the only way to get out of this maya of desire, is to flip it. Don’t expect to get. Instead-- Give! Give on your birthday. Give to an orphanage. Give money for a sponsored meal at the ISCKON temple. There is nothing that can stop you from celebrating yourself while giving. Go for it! Also, before you go, my birthday is in March, and I've already planned what Imma gonna do! Ah ha ha ha ha.

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