It’s 7pm when the doorbell rings and my host mother, Geeta, beckons my roommate and I to gather our things. I throw my water bottle and camera into a drawstring backpack, in an effort to be as minimalist as possible. As I enter the sitting room, I see two young boys peering into Geeta’s apartment, refusing entrance while hovering the doorway, craning their necks around the door, curiously observing the two Americans that stand before them. They remain silent and wide-eyed as Jenny and I introduce ourselves and join them outside while Geeta locks up behind us. As we get into the car, Jenny and I slide into the back, leaving the door open for one of the boys to join us, only to find the two of them snugly sharing the front passenger’s seat. They direct Geeta as she drives us to their home, nestled in one of Pune’s slums, where they live with their father, sisters, and mother, our wonderful housekeeper, Sangita.
When we arrive, the boys lead us through narrow passageways, which are warm, dimly lit, and infused with the aromas of incense coming from open the doorways of Sangita’s neighbors. We maneuver our way through the clotheslines above our heads and the sleeping dogs at our feet until we reach Sangita’s home. We remove our shoes and enter into a room, not larger than eight feet by twelve, where four women quickly greet us before returning to their busy preparations of tonight’s long anticipated birthday dinner. Sangita’s daughter, Soni, is turning nineteen, the last birthday that she will celebrate in her mother’s home, as she is getting married in October.
Anxious to leave the cramped room and to allow the women to proceed with their work, we are led up a steep metal staircase into another room, not much larger than the first. Soni greets us and invites us to sit on the one mat that lies across the otherwise empty floor. We insist that we are fine sitting on the floor and that she should take the seat since it is her birthday after all. She argues that we are her guests and therefore must sit comfortably. She exits the room only after she ensures that we have obliged, leaving Jenny, Geeta, and myself in the room with her future mother-in-law. We attempt to make pleasantries with the woman, but the language barrier between us makes small talk difficult. She speaks with Geeta in Marathi as Jenny and I watch people bustling around to prepare for the celebration. Small children come running through the room every few minutes from a ladder leading up to yet another floor above us. Among them are Sangita’s sons, as well as children belonging to her sisters, neighbors and community, all of whom are considered family. They whisper to each other and giggle as they pass, excited by the festive mood and the presence of foreigners. Sangita’s husband enters the room to serve us some mango juice and to turn on the small television in the corner for us to watch. Feeling guilty about my sedentariness as everyone is hard at work around me, I politely finish the excessively sweet drink and bring myself to peek at the television screen only when my favorite Indian commercial comes on (trust me on this one, it’s precious: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqKXkKplELU).
In a matter of seconds, the room is suddenly filled with people, young and old, family and friends. All are smiling, anxiously awaiting Soni’s entrance. A chair and small table are brought to the center of the room and a cake is placed upon the table. When Soni enters the room, all eyes turn to the birthday girl. Now donning a stunning purple and gold sari, beautiful jewelry, flowers in her hair, and a bright smile across her face, she takes a seat in front of the birthday cake. Sangita brings out a plate containing a candle and some ceremonial substances, bestowing a blessing upon her daughter. She waves the plate around Soni’s face before passing the plate along to Soni’s father and then to her fiance. To our surprise, suddenly all eyes fall on Jenny and I and Geeta tells us that we are to do the same. I stand up, terror stricken, hoping that I paid close enough attention to perform the motions correctly. Do I move the plate clockwise? Counterclockwise? How many times? Will I offend someone if my actions are not done in a precise way? Angry at myself for not paying closer attention to what those before me were doing, I repeat their actions to the best of my ability. Looking around, everyone seems to be pleased, so I return to my seat, content with my efforts and breathe a sigh of relief.
Once Jenny returns the plate to Sangita, a candle in the shape of a lotus flower is lit in front of the cake. As the flame melts the wax holding the flower closed, the petals are released, falling into several smaller flames. As the center of the flower is exposed, it starts to play the “Happy Birthday” song, winning my vote for the coolest candle to ever grace a birthday cake. Everyone begins to sing along, in the first English I have heard all night and the room is filled with applause as the song comes to an end. Soni cuts small pieces of cake, feeding them one by one to her father, mother, and betrothed, before suddenly appearing before Jenny and I, with pieces of cake traveling very quickly towards our mouths. We reluctantly accept, dumbfounded at the idea of someone we have only just met treating us as she does her close family, casually feeding us dessert.
Most of the guests leave the room with the rest of the cake, leaving only Soni, her immediate family, Jenny, Geeta, and myself. Soni moves towards her mother, bowing at her feet to offer blessings before doing the same to her father, soon-to-be mother in-law, Geeta, Jenny and me. I feel awestruck and somewhat ashamed about how involved Jenny and I have been in the birthday proceedings. We are strangers crashing one of her most significant birthday celebrations thus far, being treated like close family when we have known each other for less than two hours. Sangita makes sure we have our fill of supper before anyone else even begins. They all observe us intently, putting our dining etiquette to the ultimate test, asking Geeta why we eat so little, why we brought our own water, why we need spoons to eat our rice and dall (one thing I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat with my hand without it ending in a messy disaster). Though I feel embarrassed by all of the attention, I am amazed by the hospitality and generosity that we have been shown by people who face the challenge of simply sustaining themselves each and every day. When we depart, they all remain waving and wishing us well until we are out of sight, even the boys who were at first so shy.
As we make our way home, look back to my own nineteenth birthday, more than a year ago. I reflect on my celebratory indulgences, which now seem excessively self-centered after the modesty that Soni displayed tonight. I try to imagine myself being ready to take on the commitment and responsibilities of marriage at my age. For me, it seems incomprehensible and I feel so immature, yet the entire night, Soni’s smile radiated the some of the most genuine happiness that I have ever witnessed, and her confident grace lit up even the darkest corner of the slum in which she lives. I am so lucky to have been able to experience such a birthday gathering and am thankful for Sangita’s invitation to be a part of such a special day.