Puzzles of Birthdays


Dr. Ravi P. Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

One important event in one’s life is the birthday, the day when one was born, the day the baby started crying in its mother’s lap. This important day is celebrated the next and subsequent years by many rich or well to do people by greetings of Happy Birthday and having a party where food and drinks flow easily. Another essential item on a birthday is to have a cake with lighted candles placed on it and the person whose birthday is being celebrated asked to blow out the flames.

I have often felt puzzled by this western custom of blowing out the flame of the candles. In India, it is traditionally good to light a candle on Diwali  or some happy occasion, not to de-light a candle or   diya  (earthen lamp). Now that I have written this word, I feel that some western people find delight in the process to de-light the candle.

There are different reasons of celebration of this event. If a person crosses the age of 18 years and becomes eligible to vote, one can understand the reason for the celebration. Similarly, becoming 21 years old may also be important for marriage purposes in some countries now. Earlier children were married to each other much below this age. Gandhi himself was married to Kasturba when both were 13 years old. My own mother got married at about this age. Why celebrate this event annually, however appears puzzling to me.

Another reason for celebration of a birthday by shouting    Happy Birthday is, if one is born on the same day as some important personage. Thousands of children have been born on 2nd October— the day Gandhi was born and these children could proudly claim their unique heritage. In fact Lal Bahadur Shastri   also shared this date of birth but his family was too poor to celebrate the day. However since he became the second Prime Minister of free India, the government celebrates the day for both the leaders. This day is now known as  the   International Day of Non Violence  .

Although birthdays are celebrated with great pomp and fanfare by rich and socially well known persons like film personalities, even some people with modest means do celebrate their children’s birthdays. My own mother once decided to celebrate mine by giving me a coin worth half a rupee and asked me to buy some sweets for myself and my younger sister. No new clothes or toys.

A family I knew was proud that their son was born on 27 December and shared the birthday with the renowned French scientist Louis Pasteur. Similarly, some families in South America are happy if their son is born on 23 October — the day the legendary Brazilian footballer Pelé was born. They hope that their son would become a great footballer when he grows up and bring fame and money to the family.

These seem to be good reasons for celebration but the reverse is also true. In some overcrowded countries, new babies add to the overcrowded populations of the country as well as make their upbringing difficult for the poor parents. This is unfortunately true when the baby is a girl. One occasionally hears of a poor woman dropping her new born babe into a well before she herself commits suicide. This is largely due to gender injustice towards the female gender.

A person who is seventy years old may not be particularly interested in his birthday — the older he becomes the more medical problems he faces. I have seen some old people in their homes surrounded by all sorts of medicines and pills. Apart from pain in different parts of the body, and a feeling of lack of energy, there is occasionally loss of memory. This becomes socially problematic and embarrassing when one can recognise a person but cannot recall the person’s name if meeting him after a gap of time.

However, if a person is 98 or 99 years old he may welcome his next birthday that would make his age a three digit number. I have a cousin who is in his nineties and reasonably healthy. He laughs when one asks if he will complete his century. He has apparently good genes since his mother — my aunt, died at the age of 96 years. Similarly, I have heard some Brits and others feel that the Queen Elizabeth who is already  about 95 years old will complete her century since she is reasonably healthy for her age. Her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh is 99 years old and is likely to complete his century in June of this year.

While most of us would like to extend our lives and postpone death, there is an unusual practice called    sallekhna  among a section of people who follow the religious faith Jainism. This practice aims at ending one’s life voluntarily by not eating or drinking anything. It is difficult to deliberate on the reason behind this custom except to say that the person following this custom feels that he/she has lived enough. The Supreme Court of India has not called this practice similar to that of attempting suicide, which is punishable under law. There is also the custom of fasting for political or social reasons in India that was followed by Mahatma Gandhi on several occasions with successful outcomes.

I think I have deliberated enough on the issue of birthdays. If I talk more about it, some readers, including the gracious Editor of TMS may feel that I want to extend my essay till my next birthday.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi. ravipbhatia@gmail.com


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Jan 2021.

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2 Responses to “Puzzles of Birthdays”

  1. Lorraine Mazzocato says:

    Dear Dr Bhatia,
    I very much enjoyed your article, “Puzzles of Birthdays”. It’s true that we do practice some strange birthday customs in the west. Perhaps marking our birthdays with parties, presents and cake is simply a means of distracting ourselves from thinking of what it’s really all about- our own mortality!
    Best Regards,

  2. Thank you sincerely for your comments on my article in birthdays. I agree with you that having big birthday parties is a means of distracting ourselves from thinking about our own mortality. It also helps us rich people to ignore the poverty and destitution we see around us.