(or Scenes from a Trip-III)
Fellow travel companions, if you are reading this post, it begins with some rather elaborate context-setting. Skip to the next section if you want to go straight to the wonderful time you had with R. and me.
I have mixed feelings about public birthday celebrations. As a person with few friends (most of whom live outside my city), there is not much opportunity for me to be subjected regularly to a roomful or tableful of adults singing happy birthday to me — which I am honestly thankful for. But it is also pleasant to have small, modest gatherings on occasion, especially when you’re away from home.
As an adult, I’ve celebrated my birthday with friends exactly three times — each of these occasions was either memorable or embarrassing, with the embarrassing outnumbering the memorable.
On my twenty-fifth, cold and alone in my room at university in England, my Pakistani flatmate found out from a Facebook post that it was my birthday. She showed up at my door, demanded why I hadn’t told them, and promptly rounded up the rest of our apartment to take me out to dinner. I still think of this evening with great fondness — the buffet at an Asian restaurant, the bus ride on a dark evening, the warmth of people I had met only a month ago.
A few years later, I celebrated my birthday with work colleagues in Goa, with nearly thirty people singing to me. This is a memory I’m dredging up with great pain, and to keep it from triggering anyone else, I’ll promptly lock it up in the corner it has stayed frozen in for years. You do not resurrect certain ghosts.
But the birthday that takes the cake is my twenty-third. At work in Singapore, my friends bought me a cake and kept it in the fridge, to be cut at the intersection of our morning and afternoon shifts. When the time came, the surprise was announced and met with great delight. I was led into the pantry and I cut the cake.
It was only a few minutes later that we found out I had cut someone else’s cake. Another person on our floor shared their birthday with me, and in their excitement and work stress, my friends had brought out the wrong cake from the fridge, which also happened to be fancier than ours. Since we bought cakes at short notice, there was no personalisation. My friend offered to pay for a new cake for the other birthday-celebrator and I think they declined the offer, but not without some grumbling. This is another memory I’d rather not resurrect, but the potential for a laugh is too good to ignore.
So you see, there is every possibility for a public birthday celebration to go wrong. Which is why you need meticulous planning and immense secrecy.
(End of preface)
This brings me to a little over a week ago, when we celebrated R1.’s thirtieth. At the other end of the country, far from family and friends, she was thrown in with our group to mark her important day. We had to find a way to make it special.
While wrapping up some last-minute shopping, R1. stepped away for an errand. As she was away for a bit, R2. and I seized the opportunity to make a call to the hotel and arrange a cake for her. We gathered the rest of the group in a tight circle, made meticulous plans about the time when we were to come down to dinner (five minutes earlier than what would be announced in front of R1.), and swore everyone to secrecy. I was worried throughout that R1. would find us in the midst of our planning and kept looking at the door, mentally preparing for a quick change of topic — since this was in the midst of my voicelessness, I would have to type out something on my phone and force people to look at it. (And the lovely people would have, this much I know for sure.)
But I didn’t have to worry. R1. had run into some colleagues who had ended up in the same part of town — she had indulged in a little drama of her own, calling out and running across a crowded street to catch up with them. This fortuitous meeting bought us the extra time we needed to firm up our plans.
Meetings and photos done, we entered the car. Despite the break from the birthday discussions, S. couldn’t contain himself. ‘So, R1., your birthday is tomorrow?’
Since I was really afraid the secret plans would inadvertently come out and couldn’t say a word, I grabbed S.’s shoulders in warning, and stopped just short of yanking him back and muffling him (sorry, S.!). Fortunately, we moved on to stimulating subjects such as airport metro lines, and the birthday discussion ended there. (R1. tells me now that she should have got the hint there, but I think we were all a little exhausted — it had been a long day.)
The rest of the story is fairly anti-climactic. We reached our hotel, acted our parts, went to our rooms, and gathered again for the celebration. R1. arrived before one of our party, so there was a bit of a scramble to make sure the cake didn’t come out before the circle was complete. But soon all was well: our friend arrived, the cake followed, and the evening passed blissfully. We put three people on the spot, sang to them, embarrassed them to the point that they threatened us with blackmail, and ate cake. We exchanged presents. There was friendship and contentment and a sense of happiness that we are obviously still carrying with us.
I’ll wrap this up with a conversation between R. and me earlier today. She told me how the trip had exceeded her expectations and I told her how we had a lifetime of material.
‘If there is an afterlife and we meet there, I know what we’ll continue to discuss.’
‘Afterlife agenda sorted,’ she said. ‘How come this line didn’t make it to the blog post?’
And so it does, on popular demand. Thank you, R1. and to all of you who are steadily contributing to this series.
(R1. and R2. are named so strictly in order of appearance. I’ve named a lot of variables in maths and programming classes in a past life.)