I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was looking at a laptop presentation of a seven year-old-boy dressed like Akshay Kumar flying through a fake wall of bricks on a stage. So, just to reiterate: fake Akshay Kumar, riding on a fake bike, flying through a fake wall. No, this wasn’t a nightmare, I wish it was. I was looking at a birthday party planner’s presentation of the kind of birthdays she had organised. This particular seven-year-old’s party had a Bollywood theme. Wait, it gets worse...the over-zealous parents had hired duplicates of Hrithik, Salman and Shah Rukh and had placed about 70 life-size cut-outs of movie stars all around the venue.
Just a question. Remember when birthdays were about playing musical chairs and passing the parcel? When harried mothers brought out plates teeming with ribbon sandwiches, wafers and samosas and an aeroplane or doll-shaped birthday cake sent a general flutter of excitement over all the kids? What happened to that world? Those parties were as much of a blast because we could feel the palpable excitement in the air as our mothers were busy cooking in the kitchen and our fathers were putting up balloons and streamers in the living room.
Now, there are birthday parties where Disney characters are flown down from Disneyland in Hong Kong and helicopters are hired to circle the lawn showering rose petals (Yes a la Chandini-style) on the birthday boy as he cuts his cake. Menus are customised and catered by expert chefs who can dish up food from any part of the globe— enchiladas, fruit mojitos, tofu quiches, gnocchi and even Jain sushi—served buffet style or as amuse bouches.
The child’s birthday party has become an event, a circus, heck even a tamasha, akin to a wedding function (with similar budgets to boot). Throwing a grandiose birthday celebration, for many upper-middle class Indians is a little about flashing your financial status. The young and upwardly mobile here don’t seem to bat an eyelid about dropping a cool lakh or two on it.
And this is just the sneeze-worthy stuff. Nitin Gupta, a Delhi party planner has even done parties where the budget is Rs 7-8 lakhs. So what do you get when you spend Rs 7 lakhs? The works, apparently— full-tenting, lights, shamianas, fairyland themes, invitation cards, elaborate decor, return presents, live singing and dance performances.
However, my favourite story is one about this filmmaker couple that need to be lauded for resisting the pressure to throw one of these extravagant parties. Determined to do away with the whole balloons, streamers route and yet do something meaningful and memorable, they planned an eco-friendly party for their daughter’s seventh birthday. They took her friends on a nature trail to Shantivan in Malabar Hill. They didn’t use any thermocol or styrofoam plates and glasses, thereby generating no garbage. Children were given pots to paint on, chose saplings they wanted to plant in them and then got to take the pot home as their return present. The parents wanted the children to get a chance to bond with nature and were horrified to find one of the children at the party started crying because she had to touch mud. That’s how unexposed Mumbai children can be to the natural world.
We’ve really forgotten the pleasure of simpler things. Of a simpler time. Kids will have a great time no matter what, as long as they can run around and play together. It really isn’t about the amount of money you can spend but about what your child sees as the effort you’ve put in to make the party special and original. In a consumerist society, there is a lot of peer pressure to conform to the norm. Kids only know what they are exposed to and don’t have the tools to fight the stereotype. The onus is on us, the parents, to broaden the child’s horizons by showing them that fun doesn’t have to be expensive. Above all, it’s up to us, to teach them they can have a blast even without helicopters showering rose petals on them.
From working for Newsweek in New York to writing for DNA in Mumbai, writer and editor, Rukhmini Punoose’s current full-time employers are her 4-year-old son and baby daughter.