Or why we are all such sheep? Or why I am such a social recluse?
I want to talk about something rather mundane. Actually I want to rant about something rather mundane. What’s with this wishing each other madness I ask?
Let me start with the innocuous “good mornings”. One of the basic social expectations is that you wish people a good morning when you meet them – I haven’t yet got the hang of that. What exactly is the wish for?
Will my morning be good because you wished it so? What if morning doesn’t turn out well?
If wishes were horses, everyone’s morning, afternoon, evening, and night would be good? But we know that doesn’t happen, right? What then is the good morning for
Are you going to feed me my favorite breakfast to make my morning good? How will your wishes help me with all the stresses of my life?
Just because you smile, how’s that supposed to help me? What if I am hurting inside – and then you expect me smile in return?
And how does that forced smile really help when I can really see that you’re doing so only because it’s expected social convention?
Nah, I don’t really get it. Of course the teenagers here get what I don’t get. Most of them are as grumpy as I am – not necessarily with their friends, but with others in general; especially their family members! There was this colleague who tried very hard for 5-6 years to get me to wish her good morning. I did so for a few months. Then I realized that neither is my morning better nor my life happier. In fact the effort to smile and wish is too much effort for me. I take great pride and satisfaction in announcing that this teacher and many others have dropped all such expectations from me; I am much closer to my life’s mission now that no one wishes me or expects me to wish them.
If you think that my grouse ends with good morning, you are mistaken. This trashing of the “good morning” wish is just the warm up. What really gets my goat is this “happy birthday” business. Firstly, I don’t really understand the hullabaloo about the birthday. What exactly is your achievement that you were born on this day? What big deeds did a 3 year old do that deserves all the crazy celebrations? On top of a complete hollow celebration foundation, the wishes can get so banal. You wake up (or are woken up) with people wishing you happy birthday – now online more so than offline. At least there were some cards 8-10 years back. Someone would make an effort to write a message, even if was rather hackneyed.
Today even that minimal effort is missing. What’s the big deal if you just you whatsapp me a Happy Birthday. It might as well might have a bot programmed to write an automated message. And I shudder when someone on a Whatsapp group has a birthday. One person starts it, then everyone like bleating sheep will mindlessly wish the same. What exactly does that achieve? Of course what does “the wish” achieve in the first place?
If someone wishes you a Happy Birthday – does it mean one of the following?
That your birthday will be happy because that person has wished it
That you should have a happy day because it’s a birthday
That birthdays are otherwise unhappy and therefore you need my wishes to make it happy
That happiness is what we all need to get to eventually in life and happy birthday wishes are necessary to get us there
I dread my own birthday for the umpteen wishes that I have to respond to; I am almost on the verge of writing a program that will respond with the appropriate emojis encoded, “Thank you XYZ, for your wonderless / thoughtless / unoriginal / unimaginative wishes. Consider this response for all your future wishes as well”. I dread even more, birthdays of those whom I am “supposed” to wish. Of course having ignored my respected family elders for many years on their birthdays and anniversaries, they now feel thrilled when I strategically call them once in 3 years.
Now if this inanity and insanity stopped with wishes, it might just be bearable. But lamentably, it doesn’t stop there. Wishes are followed by ghastly birthdays, especially children’s birthday parties. Cheesy music, a party planner, shrill and over the top; humdrum decoration, and for crying out loud – MUST all children’s birthday parties serve cake, french fries, pizza and coke? Among one of his many rants about westernization of Indian culture, my grandfather’s favourite was the one about cakes replacing Indian sweets for birthday celebrations. Dare any parents serve gajar ka halwa at a birthday? Not only with the others kids ostracize the birthday prince / princess, their own kid will blame them for humiliation in front of their friends and deep psychological trauma inflicted upon them for life.
You might defend birthdays by saying that if nothing else at least they are fun. Clearly you haven’t ever been late your wife’s birthday. Early in our marriage, I made that mistake once. My belief in the value of forgiveness increased manifold that day; to the extent that to this day I am still asking for forgiveness for that day. Clearly, you haven’t had to shop for gifts for birthdays (and anniversaries) year on year for more than a quarter of a century. Every time a birthday of a family member approaches, I start losing on my sleep – I have nightmares about trying to come up with a great gift – unique, preferably a surprise, preferably showing how thoughtful, considerate and loving I am. Now I ask you, do I sound anything like these adjectives?
Life as we know it would be radically different if we didn’t make such a fuss about birthdays and celebrations in general. Not only would we save money, but we would save the environment by reducing fuel consumption, plastic usage and food wastage. Parents would be so much less stressed – they wouldn’t have to chaperone their kids from one birthday to the other, or try to compete on who can throw the most extravagant birthday party.
I also have a deeply philosophical grouse against the detrimental impact of this birthday culture that we are part of today. I believe that an individual’s self-worth is inversely correlated to the amount of pleasure and emotional succour that you derive from birthday wishes and celebrations. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that the more “specialness” you derive from your birthday wishes and celebrations, the more emotionally insecure you are?
You might argue that wishes can and celebrations can be made meaningful. But do you know how much effort that takes? I tried to make wishes meaningful but it eventually didn’t work. Not wanting to be a sheep, I decided that I will not deliver run-of-the-mill birthday wishes to people I know. For a year, I wrote meaningful messages for each person I wished at work, and in my family. It was only then that I realized the true value of social conventions, of being a sheep – it’s so much effort in coming up with even one nice thing for each person – especially if you want it to be unique.
My idealism trampled upon, I became a fraud. I have now “put a stone on my heart” and I send or deliver shallow HBD wishes – preferably only when someone starts a mindless whatsapp thread. Now, I am waiting for that killer AI app though – one that will seamlessly deliver in oral and written formats, HBD wishes, preferably unique, preferably thoughtful, considerate and loving – all qualities integral to my personality (obviously).
Till that day then, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night, and a very happy birthday in advance to all of you celebrating your birthday this year; consider these wishes done for as long as I live.
P.S. For anyone celebrating their birthday today, this week, and in the coming year, I most insincerely apologize for ruining your special day. Good day to you then, right?
This piece was written for and performed at an event called Monsoons Musings, organized by Grade 11 students of Fountainhead School on September 21, 2019