A Celebratory Essay

Yes, I admit I am a baby about birthdays. I wait for mine, the seventy-fifth day in a non-leap year, and I hope people will remember and I relish emails and cards and calls and well-wrapped presents. That day on the calendar has a special sparkle about it and I feel its magic as it approaches and eke it out as long as I can manage. As I grow older (not up, but older), it gets harder to show the enthusiasm I feel for birthdays. How inappropriate, I seem to hear my peers say! Hence, this defence cum celebration.

Why not, I ask, celebrate the day you were born?

I relish other people’s birthdays because I am glad they were born and glad they are part of my life. I am grateful for the gift of their presence, the lessons they come to teach and if they are people I love, humbled by the bounty of being able to love them. The ability to remember the florist’s and pharmacist’s birthdays eludes me now, but my enthusiasm for this peopled universe in which I live is undiminished.

My own birthday is especially important to me. Of course, as a child and if I am honest, even as a college student, the attention and gifts were the most attractive part of having a birthday. Age, life, learning—what did I care about these things at eight or even eighteen. I was young even when I thought I was grown up, and I had more life ahead of me than I could even imagine—what was I going to be at 45? It was so far away I could not imagine it. Old people were in their fifties, middle-age began in the late thirties, and youth ended at around twenty.

In college and for a while thereafter, I would engineer good birthdays for myself. I would tell people what I wanted for my birthday and for a while, even selected my own cards. (Yes, as my Marathi teacher Mrs. Damle would say, when it came to birthdays, I was a ‘besharam mulgi’—shameless girl—alright!) My Christmas-New Year card campaigns were motivated in some part by the thought that when people heard from me in January, they might remember that I had a birthday in March. (Let no one tell you Pisceans cannot be strategic thinkers!) They might then get organized enough to write me a letter or something. In fairness to me, that letter on a post-card or inland letter or aerogramme was really good enough. Presents were great, but I just wanted to be remembered. I wanted people to take cognizance of the fact that I am here and I am alive. That recognition was the real gift.

Over the years, in something of a defence of my devotion to the day I was born, I have developed something of an ideology about birthdays. But before propounding this ideology, let me tell you what the last few birthdays have been like.

The last birthday I celebrated was my thirtieth birthday. The month I turned thirty-one, it began to dawn on me that certain things in my life that seemed constants—places, people, memories—were all changing. I couldn’t remember things about my life—the years I spent studying French, for instance. They were such a big part of my life and then suddenly, I forgot all about them and would occasionally remember, "Oh yes, that’s right, I did that." My own life seemed to be slipping away from me and I couldn’t hold on and there was nothing ahead. I spent that entire month grieving acutely. I would find tears in my eyes as I walked to class. My throat would constrict in the middle of some mundane task. My heart was heavy with grief I could not explain at all. "It is Margaret you grieve for." Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem was the only thing that made sense. Suddenly, my life had changed and I could not fathom why or how. All I could feel was the insecurity of the transition. Less than two months later, my father died suddenly. It was as if I had known this was going to happen.

In the five birthdays between then and now, I have gone through the motions of celebration. I have gone out to lunch and coffee and dinner. I have received calls, cards and presents. I have bought new clothes. But I have not celebrated.

Although life’s difficulties did not stop me from doing what needed to be done, they chipped away at my joie de vivre. Everyday was a day to get through. Every year was another year marking time. A fortress of negativity protected me from the outside world, but it did not protect me from itself, depleting the life-force within me to reinforce its ramparts. As dullness, as flesh, as depression, as lack of desire, as repressed grief and anger, and above all, as fear, this fortress against the world turned into a suffocating prison-cell. In its dank and dark quarters, my zest for life languished. The effervescent spirit of my childhood went flat.

Passivity is not acceptance. Apathy and inertia are not detachment. And lacking joy is not a sign of adulthood.

This year, I am celebrating my birthday.

This year, I am celebrating my life. I am alive, gloriously and wonderfully alive. It is March. Somewhere in the world, the sun is shining gently and lingering winter breezes ripple through the gilded saffron petals of shevanti flowers. Somewhere in the world, people are walking around with the remnants of Holi colours in their hair and under their fingernails. Somewhere in the world, the school year is drawing to a close and even examinations cannot detract from the joy of a half-day at school. Spring is here, and along with me, the rest of nature celebrates birth and life.

I am alive. Is that not miracle enough?

And look at the miracle of my life (or anyone else’s): one is born; one teethes with great difficulty; learns to eat solid foods, to walk, to talk, to run, to tell people apart; one has a first day at school and college and at one’s first paying job; one travels for the first time, the fifth time, the fiftieth time; one makes friends and sometimes loses them; one hurts, fails, is wounded, loses, gives up and then one survives all that and turns thirty-seven… is this not miracle enough to warrant a celebration?

So this is my ideology: Birthdays should be celebrated because one should celebrate life. And one’s celebration of life begins with a celebration of the day that one’s life in the world began.

I am so happy to be alive. After years, there is joy in my heart, there is desire in my mind, there is excitement in my spirit. My birthday celebration is a celebration of all these things.

But this too will pass, and when this celebration is over, it will remain in my mind a reminder of this mood and this moment. These words will remind me of the possibility of joy and the importance of expressing it. The gifts I receive will break or tear or dry up or run out, but the thought and affection that went into them with sustain me through other times. These people from different, even some long-lost, corners of my life that remember and call or write or email me, are the reasons my life is worth celebrating. In the moment that I am in their thoughts and in their hearts, I am alive.

It is that life that I celebrate today. It is my birthday. I am happy to be alive. I look back and my life looks pretty good, in spite of the hard times and in spite of the things and people it lacks. Today, as though for the first time, I look at my life and see that it is MY life. Mine, not anyone else’s, with all its tribulations and triumphs, bearing the impress of my own thoughts, dreams, deeds and decisions. It is MY life, lived with my unique passions and experienced as only I can experience it. Strikingly flawed, brilliantly bungled, passionately imperfect—it is all mine. All the tears, all the complaints, all the giggling, all the pleasure—all mine. There is no one like me, there is no life like mine. This uniqueness is what I celebrate today.

On this day, 16th March 2001, I celebrate myself and my life, and affirm my will to live it fully and as only I can, in every moment.

Swarna Rajagopalan
16th March, 2001
East Lansing