I had the worst 24th birthday ever. The midnight bell didn’t ring. Friends bailed out over mis-spelt SMSs, promising to meet on the weekend. Only one friend met me for dinner. I cried that night. I had shown up at 11:50 pm at the doors of all these friends. $7.99 Flowers cradled between my bent elbows. Hands gripping exotic soaps, that I enthusiastically packed in shimmering wrapping paper, tied up with a misaligned bow. 

Over 3 years of knowing them, I had contributed $20 into money pools to buy gifts. I scribbled nice compliments on birthday cards that opened into boring jokes about balding & age, which I had personally chosen after sampling tens of cards from the stationary aisle 11 of Kroger, in Atlanta. These friends owed at least me a birthday dinner. I was angry, sad and upset and swore to revenge to not doing nothin’ on their birthdays. 

Millions of birthday-peoples’ hearts break on birthdays. In the lockdown, it’s in the order of billions. I’ve seen sadness, boredom, and disappointment on birthdays– there is a deep desire that a birthday must be celebrated with someone… anyone! 

The joke making its rounds in the bustling suburb of Sunnyvale is: the biggest surprise you can give on a birthday person, is to not show up at midnight at their home. I am not the only one who’s faced this shock. Stories have been narrated over forest campfires “My birthday was on a dark cold night. The bell rang at exactly 8:00 pm. Ting. Tong. Ting. Tong. I adjusted my hair. I had practiced how to show my surprise to the 20 people outside the door. I would say ‘oh my god!’ and then hug them all. Then I swung open the door. It was my neighbour. He needed his spare keys”.

In my 20’s, I’ve been happy on birthdays when many people celebrated it with me. I’ve been sad on many birthdays, when my friends didn’t do things as I imagined. 

But we cannot blame friends. We do this sadness to ourselves. We expect being treated special on our birthday, with gifts, wishes, and messages. The business of birthdays is such– the world is burdened to tell you that you’re special. Then confirm that you’re special. The world has to supplement the confirmation with time, money, and material things to lock in the feeling of being a special person. For just that one day. 

Neha, who is absolutely a fake name that I am using, is telling me about how she leaned on her local Sunnyvale friends to make her birthday special. All along, her gut knew these friends are temporary. I agree. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone in their 30’s to recall their past 10 birthdays and confirm– these midnight bell-ringing people aren’t friends anymore. Actually, they were never friends. They were nice acquaintances. The real friends, the ones who really think I am special– don’t even remember my birthday. I also forget to wish them on theirs. But I know, when the tears are flowing, or the pressure cooker has burst to splatter daal on the celing, these birthday-less friends are there to help every single time. They are the ones who give their mailing address, so that you can ship visa documents to them. They are the ones who listen to your complaint about how you should have been promoted. They listen to your “Whaan whaan whaaan”. None of the midnight door-ringer friends will do that for you. If you got into a fight in reliance express mall with a customer, they won’t show up. ‘Who’s going to drive and lock punches with a punjabi guy?’ They’ll sit behind my desk and send jhumkas over amazon (plz note: this criteria not applicable over lockdown okay?). 

Let me bring this screeching wheel back on the tarred road. We are not discussing the nature of acquaintances and friends. We are talking about us. We want validation. We want special feelings. Friends are but a medium. This expectation of needing friends to fulfill an expectation has led to all combinations of problems. 

Neha (the fake name girl) was 45 mins late to a birthday dinner. She was rotating her car wheels into a parking spot she finally found, after 30 minutes of searching for one, in San Francisco. A phone, seated like a tiny passenger next to Neha, lit up. Snatching it, Neha hurried to get out of her car, and noticed an SMS from the birthday girl “So you’re not coming is it? I can see what a good friend you are!!”. Neha almost tripped and fell because she was rolling her eyes so much. Seriously? One day she comes late and she’s expelled from the friendship circle?

I tell you, don’t dare miss a birthday dinner– all your friendship tests are passed on that night. You can be a terrible friend throughout the year– reject their phone call on their 3rd try, don’t reach out when their parents are unwell, do your ironing and ‘hmmm’ when they’re crying over a boyfriend — all that is ok. But just that one night, if you show up for birthday dinner, you’re THE friend! It’s like a university course that gives 90% grade points on your final exam– nothing you did previously matters. Showing up for birthday dinners, is a brownie point winner. 

I know this, because on that night of the 24th birthday, I removed points from a friendship score. A girl SMSd me– “I don’t feel like coming. I have a headache” and I instantly hated her. I thought about all the 3 years I knew her. The planning (and paying) for her birthday dinners and cakes, boiled down into comparison with today. I felt, the least she could have done for me, is to show up. If she had lied and said “I am out of town”, perhaps I would not have hated her. 

I was too young to examine my feelings- It’s me, not her. Many of us, are desparate to celebrate this random day. Fake friends will do too. As long as they pretend they’re interested in your birthday, show up for the dinner, split that expensive bill with whoever else made it for whatever brownie point reasons, you’ll add them in your ‘I owe you a birthday dinner’ list. 

Not all people care about their birthday. A fraction of these people say they don’t care, but they actually do. A rather famous story in my friends circle goes:

A low profile guy called up a friend at 4pm on a Wednesday: 

Guy: “Do you want to have dinner tonight?”

Friend: ”Abe kyun?? Aaj tera hay-pe budday hai kya?” 

Guy, pauses “Actually haan. Aaj mera budday hai”

Many men say they don’t care about their birthday– listen and look carefully, maybe a part of them does. 

During the same year as my 24th birthday, Neha, the fake named girl, wished an acquaintance one day late. 

Neha: “Happy birthday!”

He: “Come on yaar? It was yesterday!!” This cold as an icy ice-cube response came after an unusually long pause. Neha found it ridiculous. ‘I’m wishing him, late, sure, but shouldn’t he be happy about that?’ 

Is it better to never wish a birthday, than wish late? Does it give birthday-person the same feeling as when the police arrives late at a hindi movie scene to arrest the villian? Wishing late, actually turns out WORSE than not wishing all.

If ‘When to wish’ is a problem, ‘Who to wish’ is a bigger problem. Should you wish ex-boyfriends? This is so complicated for women, that I have been on-call with a pager for a girl who couldn’t go through the whole day without wishing her ex-boyfriend on his birthday. We made a pact. “Anytime you feel the need to message him ‘happy birthday’, message me instead” and I checked in on her at regular intervals. She was melting. “He wished me on my birthday. So maybe…”. 

There is too much give and take in this business of birthdays. There are too many expectations, too much pain, too much needing from friends. This is dangerously unhealthy. What can ever justify this social dependency? I question, why are birthdays even celebrated? What’s so special about this day? Can’t people see that it makes them more depressed than happy? Can’t they see, this material dependency? I am seeing no upside to it– birthday celebration works mentally well, only when expectations is limited to the presence of immediate family. But even here, you could expect your brother to gift you an expensive electronic, just like he did last year. It never ends. 

So what’s the alternative? Should we stop celebrating birthdays, to end this cycle of ‘Hello world. Mera happy budday hai aaj!’?

Our grandparents and ancestors never had this birthday celebration concept. Nope. Many grandparents don’t remember their birthday. There must be merit to living a life, uncomplicated from expectations and the business of birthdays.

Read on more on the materialistic part of birthdays in Part 2