Happy Birthday Neha

Bhubaneswar Travel Blog

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Happy Birthday Neha

Last night Tanushree (my colleague and roommate) and I went to the home of a colleague, Bharati, to celebrate her daughter’s fourth birthday.  Bharati is lovely; we haven’t spoken a lot, but she was one of the few people from the beginning of my volunteer assignment who would say hello every morning and ask how I was doing.  I met her husband, Manas; Tanushree said he grew up in a rural village and was a rare example of a man from that background being a considerate guy and good husband.  Bharati and Manas were a “love match,” meaning their marriage wasn’t arranged.  Typically after marriage, a woman moves in with her husband and in-laws, but Bharati and Manas don’t live together; Bharati’s father died two years ago, and as the oldest child she’s now responsible for the rest of her family.  So now they (her mother, sister, and brother) live with her, and Manas is living with his parents in the village where he grew up.  They see each other at the most once a week.

 

Back to the party.

Neha and me
  The invitation was for 7; we were the first to arrive at 7:30.  Indians are not a punctual bunch, and several people have asked me if Americans really value being on time like they’ve heard.  (That would be a yes.  After all, time is money.)  The birthday girl, Neha, is absolutely adorable.  She speaks Oriya (the only person in her family who speaks English is her mother), and is learning a little English now from a CD.  She serenaded me with the alphabet, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and Humpty Dumpty.  I also got to hear her renditions of traditional Oriyan folk songs, though of course I had no idea what she was saying.  Since almost no one there spoke English, most of the time I sat and watched the interactions, sipping Sprite and feeling only slightly self-conscious.
  Other than two girls in their early 20s and my two colleagues, the adults totally ignored me; I suspect it was because they don’t speak English.  Now that I think about it though, I heard two men -- probably in their 30s -- speaking in English, but I think it’s just not part of the culture for a man to approach a woman (especially a foreign, unmarried woman) and strike up a conversation. 

 

At nine it was time to cut the cake.  Much to my surprise, Bharati asked me to help Neha cut the cake, as it would be “memorable” for her.  My mind raced with the reasons why it would be memorable: Because I’m white, I’m a foreigner, I’m a new person, everyone’s been talking about me the whole time in Oriya without my knowledge.  I quickly concluded the last one wasn’t the case; people are too wrapped up in their own lives to bother with mine.

 

So, I knelt down with Neha and we all sang “Happy Birthday” -- in English, despite the crowd not knowing the language.  I helped her cut the cake, and then completely unexpectedly someone shoved a piece of cake in my mouth!  I’d seen this once before, people feeding each other cake (and purposely getting it all over their faces) at birthday celebrations.  It’s one of the rare occasions when I’ve seen men and women interact.  It seems pretty intimate to feed cake to a person of the opposite sex, but I can’t figure India out.  Anyway, I grabbed the cake that didn’t make it into my mouth… with my left hand.  Yeesh.

The left-handed cake grab...
  I quickly moved it over to my right hand, hoping no one had seen my goof.  I asked Tanushree the next day, and she had in fact noticed it; she didn’t judge it, but she did notice it.  In India cake comes before dinner, so out came the food.  It was quite good, though too spicy for me, as is just about everything in India. 

 

Reflecting on the evening, I realized there were no other kids Neha's age there, not a one.

With a quick switch to the right hand
  Kids in the US have parties with themes that cost hundreds of dollars.  (Well, some kids.)  This was on the roof of their apartment building, streamers and balloons taped to the laundry line, with plastic chairs and one bare lightbulb.  Tanushree and I chipped in for the gift, which was 200 rupees ($5) total.  People brought presents and gave them to Neha, and she said “thank you” in English when she remembered to.  The gifts weren’t emphasized, and there was no opening of them at the party.  It was so cool to see a slice of Indian life.  And it’s definitely something a tourist wouldn’t see.  Living here is often not easy, but times like this party make it worth it.

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Happy Birthday Neha
Happy Birthday Neha
Neha and me
Neha and me
The left-handed cake grab...
The left-handed cake grab...
With a quick switch to the right h…
With a quick switch to the right …
She is just adorable!
She is just adorable!
The woman in the green sari is Bha…
The woman in the green sari is Bh…
Bhubaneswar
photo by: debrasiegel