The hullabaloo around birthdays is commonplace across cultures with variations in small or great degree. Birthdays have been understood to serve as a rite of passage at different stages in one’s life. From ‘Sweet Sixteen’ to ‘Turning 30′, ’40 is the new 20’, ‘Gracefully 50/60’, etc. goes on to mark milestones and there is some ritualisation of the affair in some manner or the other. In Axomiya (Assamese) culture, offering of a ‘xorai’ by the mother praying for the child’s well-being and success is what is most commonly observed.
However, those of us who have lived in cities have witnessed a wide array of options for ‘celebrating’ birthdays. Socialization in cities today is such that a birthday without the ‘clamour’ and some degree of ‘noise’ and festivity almost doesnot seem like a birthday. Of course, there is very much a class angle attached to this and today’s era of commercialization and marketization has had immensely to contribute to how rites, rituals, festivities are observed in present times. This has again taken a new turn with our addiction to social media and the virtual world which glorifies and takes it to yet another level. I have, however, always had a problem with the over-hyped idea of birthdays. After all what’s so big and great about a birthday?
So just this week it was my 26th birthday and I was part of the usual affair, despite my unwillingness. Living in a joint family aggravates the issue manifold. After all, birthday’s post 26 for a woman ain’t really easy!
It is a day when there is a continuous reminder of your age, some making a direct note of it, while others in passing. Not that you feel ’embarrassed’ about turning 26- still single and living with your family. But what is interesting to note is that the birthday wishes that galore in person or on your facebook timeline, is a bombardment of the idea of marriage and starting a family life. You are 26 and it is time for you to get married and settle down. This comes mostly in the guise of a ‘blessing’ or a ‘wish’. Even an urban space which is generally taken to be more driven towards individual ideals and aspirations gets intertwined amidst an intricate maze of conventional ideals of family life, marriage and childbearing all within the specifically marked and set age by the community that one is part of. And birthdays offer a perfect occasion to assert or coerce these ideals on the woman, almost denying her individual agency, right and freedom to decide for her own.
What is further fascinating is the practice of giving gifts, which manifests in ways that reproduces not just gender binaries but also how there is a prescribed regulation and policing of the woman’s identity through the gifts that are offered. So for my birthday most of the gifts that I received were of a similar kind, things that restrict and limit me within my feminine identity, from kurtas, trinkets, jewellery to cutlery and I also got a set of ‘mekhela sador’ (Assamese dress) from my parents. Yes, I knew, this was some kind of a signal saying- ‘Girl, get ready, we are preparing you for the band-baaja-baarat!’ Not that I mean that a set of mekhela sador for a birthday gift could only mean ‘marriage’, but how many boys receive ‘dhoti’ and ‘seleng sadors’ for their 26th birthday? Isn’t this very much also about how we regulate women’s identities, their agency and sexualities? How often do we find spaces even in the most progressive of circles where age does not become a matter of concern for the family, for the social group and the community that she belongs to (even if not for her), as far as a woman is concerned? It also indicates towards the roles that women are expected to perform within a strict and restrictive category of the feminine identity.
So what then does ‘celebration’ connote? What exactly do we celebrate? Isn’t it just another performance of our gender roles and being co-erced to ritualize it? Birthday’s need not always be ‘fun’. It is okay not to be okay. It is okay to not fit in the box. It is okay to ‘celebrate’ (if celebration is in the true sense of the term). And it is also okay not to celebrate. After all, what is there to celebrate in something that reinforces subtle layers of patriarchy and gender binaries?
So while I sip my coffee, manage the Sunday chores, bake a chocolicious dessert, plan my upcoming travel and browse once again through the 100 plus birthday wishes on my timeline, someone please make a note and wish me more travel, more reading, more comfort food and ‘simple-nothings’ in the year ahead. It isn’t too late! And the rest can sulk in condemnation.