I have often wondered why people celebrate birthdays.
We start doing it right from childhood. Children look forward to their birthdays. On your birthday, you need not wear the school uniform; you can come to school in your favourite dress. Distribute chocolates to the entire class. To me, not getting to wear the uniform for a day was the biggest attraction when in school. Unfortunately, I myself never got to do it, as my birthday happened to be during the vacations. I looked at others with envy, who were luckier. But since it was vacation time, my father used to take me out for English movies – Bruce Lee movies, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which I still remember fondly. In college, the uniforms were gone. Here, a birthday meant going out with your friends to a nearby Udupi restaurant and eating your favourite dish. Onion Uttappa. Pao Bhaji. Cassata ice-cream. Those days, even this was a luxury, and so birthdays were eagerly awaited. In many of the offices I have worked for, there is a custom to cut cake within your department on the birthday. Others bring the cake and you cut it. Then someone comes and applies it to your face. Sometimes, they even kick you in the ass. Everyone laughs (obviously). I don’t know what’s in this that is worth enjoying. Is this a celebration or a punishment? By the time you are working, even the joy of growing is gone. You wish you were younger. Birthdays never came.
An achievement would call for a celebration. A victory would. Good news would. But a birthday is none of this. From the dumbest idiot in town to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, everybody was born on some day or other. So what is the big deal about a birthday? Why do people celebrate birthdays?
I have raised this question many times to many people, but only once have I got a somewhat meaningful answer. This only shows that most of the people who celebrate birthdays have no clue why they do it. They probably do it because it is the custom. Because others do it. How sad.
But once, a friend told me it is a celebration of life. You are glad to be alive. That’s what you are celebrating.
This set me thinking.
This is probably how the custom might have originated. In the olden days, death rates were high. Epidemics devastated nations. An entire generation would get sacrificed in war. Floods and famines would ravage the lands, and no formal relief mechanisms were available. Infant mortality was high. Medical science was not developed. Life expectancy was low. Yes, staying alive itself was an achievement. Call yourself lucky if you are alive and growing (in age atleast!).
But is this argument valid today? The answer may be yes, if you are born in sub-Saharan Africa. But ironically, they are not the ones who celebrate their birthdays. Those who do, face no such challenges. Unless you are very very unlucky (and die in a plane crash or something, which was no fault of yours), and if you drive sensibly, don’t drink too much or smoke, maintain decent eating habits and give your body sufficient exercise, it is not difficult to stay alive and survive till your average life expectancy. The world population is growing. And growing fast. Which means for most of us, there would be no justification to celebrate birthdays till the age of 70 or so.
There is another – and a more important point. What have you done all these years that justifies your being alive, that makes your life worthwhile? Try to answer this question – what good deed have I done today (something over and above the normal duties at home and office)? Or this past week? Or this past one month? Or one year? Or several years? Try to prepare a list – and see how difficult it is. Seriously.
If your list is empty, what are you celebrating really?