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Rite of passage or stereotype reinforcement? The author is fed up of being asked to settle down during every birthday and wonders what the big deal is about celebrating them.
The hullabaloo around birthdays is commonplace across cultures, with variations in degree, be it small or large. Birthdays have been understood to serve as rites of passage at different stages in one’s life. ‘Sweet sixteen,’ ‘turning 30,’ ‘40 is the new 20,’ or ‘gracefully 50 or 60,’ these epithets just go on to mark milestones and there is a ritualistic reinforcement of the affair in some manner or the other. In the Axomiya culture, offering of a ‘xorai’ by the mother praying for the child’s well-being and success is what is most commonly observed.
However, those of us who have lived in cities have witnessed a wide array of options for ‘celebrating’ birthdays. Socializing in cities today dictates that a birthday without clamour, noise and festivity almost doesn’t seem like a birthday. Of course, there is very much a class angle attached to this and today’s era of commercialisation has contributed immensely to how rites, rituals and festivities are observed in present times. This has again taken a new turn with our addiction to social media and the virtual world, which glorify and take it to yet another level. I have however, always had a problem with the hyped idea of birthdays. After all, what’s so big and great about a birthday?
This month, it was my 26th birthday and I was part of the usual affair, despite my unwillingness. Living in a joint family aggravates the issue manifold. After all, post 26, birthdays for a woman ain’t really easy! It is a day when there is are continuous reminders of your age, with some people making a direct note of it, while others in passing.
Not that you feel ‘embarrassed’ about turning 26, being single and living with family. But what is interesting to note is that the birthday wishes either conveyed to you by people in person or on your Facebook timeline, they bombard the idea of marriage and of starting a family life. “You are 26 and it is time for you to get married and settle down.” This comes mostly in the guise of a ‘blessing’ or a ‘wish’.
Even an urban space, which is generally taken to be more driven towards individual ideals and aspirations, gets intertwined with an intricate maze of conventional ideals of family life, marriage and childbearing, all within the specifically marked and set age, by the community that one is part of. And birthdays offer a perfect occasion to assert or coerce these ideals on the woman, almost denying her individual agency, right and freedom to decide on her own.
What is further fascinating is the practice of giving gifts, which manifests in ways that reproduce not just gender binaries but also how there is a prescribed regulation and policing of a woman’s identity through the gifts that are offered. For my birthday, most of the gifts that I received were restricted to my feminine identity, right from kurtas, trinkets, jewellery and cutlery to a set of mekhela sador from my parents. Yes, I knew, this was some kind of a signal saying, “Girl, get ready, we are preparing you for the band-baaja-baarat!”
What is interesting to note is that the birthday wishes either conveyed to you by people in person or on your Facebook timeline, they bombard the idea of marriage and starting a family life.
Not that I mean that a mekhela sador set for a birthday gift could only mean ‘marriage’, but how many boys receive dhoti and seleng sadors for their 26th birthday? Isn’t this very much also about how we regulate women’s identities, their agency and sexuality? How often do we find spaces even in the most progressive of circles where age does not become a matter of concern for the family, for the social group and the community that she belongs to (even if not for her), as far as a woman is concerned? It also indicates the roles that women are expected to perform within a strict and restrictive category of the feminine identity.
So what then does ‘celebration’ connote? What exactly do we celebrate? Isn’t it just another performance of our gender roles, of being coerced into ritualising it? Birthdays need not always be ‘fun.’ It is okay not be okay. It is okay to not fit in the box. It is okay to ‘celebrate’ (if celebration is in the true sense of the term). And it is also okay not to celebrate. After all, what is there to celebrate that reinforces subtle layers of patriarchy and gender binaries?
So while I sip my coffee, manage the Sunday chores, bake a chocolicious dessert, plan my upcoming travel and browse once again through the 100 plus birthday wishes on my timeline, someone please make a note and wish me more travel, more reading, more comfort food and ‘simple nothings’ in the year ahead. It isn’t too late! And the rest can sulk in condemnation.
Image via Shutterstock.
Researcher by profession, foodie and traveller by passion. Interested in areas of gender/sexuality, body
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