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December 31, 2013

Birthday Party Reminiscences

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

Memories of a four-year-old’s birthday party held in the narrow garden at the side of her house make Madhu Jain reflect on the changes that have been wrought in Indian society since the early days

It was a lovely, home-made invitation card for a birthday party. On it was a crayon drawing of a rectangular cake with four candles – each one with a tangerine orange flame spiralling upwards, Van Gogh-ishly, if I may take the liberty of using the painter’s name as an adverb. ‘Happy Birthday Anamika’ was written, in slightly shaky schoolgirl cursive handwriting, across the folded A4 paper we keep for our printer. There were a few buttercup yellow Smileys in the background, painted against the blue of a sky you usually see in drawings by kindergarten children.

The party was scheduled the same evening in our narrow garden located on the side of the house, and in front of the living quarters where Ram Shankar, his wife and their three daughters live. Our cook and Man Friday, he had invited his family, including two brothers, their wives and children, his friends and friends of the birthday girl for the birthday celebrations. Invited and present as well were his brother’s employer and his wife. Balloons, streamers, and the children dressed in new party dresses: all shiny and glittery, with matching bling and luminous shoes.

As we nibbled on the pineapple cake loaded with fresh cream after all those present had sung ‘Happy Birthday’, it suddenly occurred to me that we had come a long way – as a nation, and as Indians in the last two decades. We (a growing number of us at any rate) were finally beginning to grow up, shedding inherited prejudices and predilections. Here was our cook celebrating his third daughter’s birthday. I know that he and his wife had hoped, desperately, for a boy. But, Anamika was the apple of his eye. His fondness for the other daughters was no less as he struggled to get them into private schools on scholarships, and ensured they had tutors to help them jump class – in both senses of the word. He wanted them to have the life he dreamed of having but never could.

CHANGING MINDSETS
Before you begin to wonder if this column is only about the changing attitude towards the girl child, I would like to state at the outset that I am also trying to explore how the coming of age of the middle class in India during the last two decades has begun to change the mindsets of those teetering on or just below the poverty line. Or, even of those hanging on to the outer fringes of the expanding middle class.

Hope, or to use a word with more resonance and currency – aspirations – were absent from their world. Not even a whisper. Then along came the ’90s, given a fillip by the ’80s as that decade began to bow out, having given us colour television and all that came with it, especially its catalysing role in spelling out the Indian dream. Verve was born in the mid-’90s. This was the decade that saw seismic changes: the unshackling of family and societal restraints the naughties (millennium decade) would take to the next level, the can-do-will-do gene-ie escape from the bottle, upward mobility getting a massive leg-up, the dil maange more Pepsi advertisement going viral and becoming the new mantra.

Stuff happened: it was our perestroika and glasnost combined. Liberalisation lifted all those put-you-and-keep-you-down lids. But it also opened Pandora’s Box. I would, rightly, be accused of living in cuckoo land if I did not mention the dark linings of the silver clouds: honour killings, female infanticide, brutal rapes, caste violence, riots, tyrannical Khap rule, domestic slavery, child labour, the omnipresence of corruption, greed – and much more.

But, somewhere in all this upheaval, a growing sense of self-worth emerged amongst those who inherited the legacy of being have-nots – including domestic help and others who provided domestic services. The line between masters and servants did not disappear. But, it faded and in some cases did move. Many people, including me, now hesitate to use the word servant. The snotty ones proudly say staff with a military sharpness, as if their homes mirrored Downton Abbey or some 21 gun-salute maharaja’s palace. But an increasing number of people, especially children (sensitised perhaps by progressive school teachers) tick off their parents for using the word naukar (servant) or jamardar/sweeper; the latter is considered a slur and comes laden with centuries-old prejudice.

THE BIG LEVELLER
It wasn’t too long ago that sanitary workers, as they now are or should be called, were not allowed to cross the cordon sanitaire of the living areas. My brother-in-law Ranjit Puri tells me that some years ago, when he asked their ‘sanitary worker’ to get him a glass of water, he froze, horror writ large on his face: how could he a jamadar touch a glass that Ranjit would put to his lips. Today, sanitary workers blend in with everybody, no longer expected to cover their faces and slink away. They look like everybody else. The export reject phenomenon was the great equaliser – especially jeans. You can’t easily tell the master from the ‘servant’ when both are wearing blue denim and keds. It is equally difficult to decipher who’s the mistress of the house and who’s the ‘servant’ when the former is wearing a branded outfit, and the maid a knock-off.

Discrimination against girls within the family is not limited to the have-nots. Surveys indicate that selective abortions are quite widespread amongst the more privileged. However, there are signs, perhaps only anecdotal at present, that things are changing. It isn’t only our Ram Shankar. My sister, Nina Puri, tells me that her Jeeves, Liladhar who hails from the hills of Himachal Pradesh, took the day off recently to cook dinner for his daughter’s birthday party. Eight of her friends from school feasted on chole kulche, a rich and delicious shahi paneer, boondi raita and chocolate cake. One of the guests had brought a layered, frosted cake.

Well, I join them all in saying a loud Happy Birthday Gals. We are beginning to show signs of growing up.

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