In days long past, when I greeted birthdays with delight rather than dread, the next best thing to having a party of my own was to attend someone else’s. I must ruefully admit that the reason had less to do with giving than getting; more specifically, the receiving of return gifts. All through the evening, as I relished the eats and entertainment, I was eagerly aware that, after the feasting and festivity, there was something special in store for me. If I had heard of Robert Browning then, I would have excitedly exclaimed, ‘The best is yet to be!’
As I look back, over five decades later, I am filled with wonder at the charm those takeaways held for my brother and me. We possessed toys and board-games in abundance, which we enjoyed in the company of the children of our colony. In comparison, what came our way at birthday celebrations were tawdry trifles. We accepted them avidly and relinquished them rapidly. We never failed, however, to await them with an anticipation that our parents deplored. "Anyone would think the two of you were starved for presents," they remarked. It amazed us how adults did not realise that youngsters love surprises.
Not all return gifts were devoid of merit. I recall an occasion when we walked back home from a birthday party, joyfully clutching small plastic figurines. “What on earth shall we do with them?” said our neighbour, who had also been invited and was inclined to be supercilious. “You can have mine if you like.” Grabbing the little cowboy before he could discard it or change his mind, my brother and I put it away carefully with our prince and ballerina.
We used them to play ‘Battlo’, a contest of our devising. My brother and I sat at either end of a long corridor, connecting the hall to the bedrooms, with armies of assorted dolls. Equipped with marbles, we rolled them along the floor, taking aim at each other’s troops. The first to knock down the entire contingent of the opponent’s soldiers was the winner. Imbued with the bizarre belief that we should prefer lessons to leisure, our parents were unable to understand our fascination for what they considered a puerile pastime.
Neither were they in favour of our going to Radhika’s birthday party rather than Meena’s, both of which were on the same date. “Meena asked you first,” they pointed out, “and you know her better.” My brother and I refrained from explaining that since Radhika was wealthy, she was sure to bestow grand and glorious gifts on us. As it turned out, those of our friends who chose Meena instead of Radhika flaunted colourful kaleidoscopes. At Radhika’s house, there was food, fun and fellowship but a lamentable lack of happy ‘returns’!