“Appy budday, Appy budday to youuuuu”, chanted the little girl. Her elder sister gave a little chuckle. “It’s… happy birthday. H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y”. She spelt out the word and taught her sibling how to pronounce it.
The little girl nodded as if she’d understood but continued chanting “Appy Budday” anyway. Her elder sister, Ilakya heaved a sigh (not because of her sister’s deliberate mispronunciation).
She was pretending to be happy at the party but she was heart-broken on the inside after knowing that birthdays came only on fixed days of the year. She’d somehow known the fact but her parents always denied it. Well, not anymore. The cat was finally out of the bag.
Ilakya and her siblings lived in a small village situated in South India. Her parents helped out at the farm and worked odd jobs when times were rough to put a roof on their head. This was the first time they were visiting a huge “pattinam” (city) called Chennai.
Her parents would usually surprise her on a random day once a year and say that it was her birthday. All of her friends at school knew when their birthdays were. All of them except Ilakya. She’d always say that she forgot and get taunted by her friends for being dumb. For eight-year-old kids who had nothing much to look forward to, birthdays were a big deal.
Sometimes, she’d ask her parents and even cry to them about it. But they always said that her birthday was even more special since it was a surprise to herself. Oviya, her best friend agreed to her parent’s logic too. She was tired of knowing what she would get every year because she always told her parents what she’d wanted beforehand. Although this calmed Ilakya a little, she’d always wanted to know when her birthday was. So, this time she decided to do something about it.
When they went back to the village after the party, Ilakya was going to confront her parents again. “I’m eight years old now. They’re not going to fool me”, she thought. Ilakya desperately waited for their four-day trip to come to an end. She put on her best behaviour and didn’t throw tantrums out of fear that her parents would keep the important information from her.
On their way home, she even refused the orange candy her parents offered to buy her for her exemplary behaviour. Needless to say, they were surprised by their daughter’s sudden change in behaviour but decided not to pursue the matter further. Soon, they went back to the village and Ilakya even helped her mother unpack their clothes.
Twice, she helped her mother feed her youngest sibling. Somehow, her altered behaviour began to worry her parents. After all, Ilakya was a whirlwind. Her naughtiness was beyond control and she alone had the power to turn all of her siblings into her personal monkeys or just monkeys.
Worry turned to fear when Ilakya went prank-free and obedient for the tenth day in a row. So, her mother, Amaravati, decided to confront her. She offered her daughter a chilled drink and patted her head after she came back home.
“Are you ok?” she asked. “You can tell amma (mother) if something is bothering you.” Her brows were creased with worry. Ilakya finished her drink quickly. “I want to ask you something,” she said. Her mother’s eyes lit up. “Anything. You can ask me anything,” said her mother.
“You’ll answer truthfully? Promise?” Ilakya was holding out her hand. Her mother placed her hand on her little palm and said “pra-pramees”. “Ayo amma (Oh mother), it’s prau-mis. P-R-O-M-I-S-E,” she said and chuckled. “I don’t understand your eeng-lees things. Now. ask me,” she said. “When’s my birthday?” asked Ilakya.
Ilakya’s question seemed to catch her off-guard. But her eyes softened quickly and she said, “I told you, it’s a surprise”. Ilakya pouted and shook her index finger to say no. “Amma, I’m eight and smart. You don’t have to fool me anymore”. Ilakya looked down now. “I know that birthdays come on fixed days of the year. It’s because you don’t have enough money, right?”
Her mother looked dumbfounded. “When’s my birthday?” she pressed her mother for the answer. Amaravati looked at her daughter. In many ways, she was very proud of her. The child certainly understood things kids her age couldn’t fathom. She was without a doubt, witty and mature despite being a troublemaker.
But this was one question Amaravati couldn’t answer simply because she didn’t know the answer. She finally sighed and said, “I don’t know, kanna (dear). I’m sorry. It’s not on purpose. But we do try to keep you happy. Now you pra-mees me that you won’t let your siblings know about any of this.”
Ilakya was disappointed that her mother had no idea when her children were born. She didn’t agree with her mother’s statement either. What kind of parents forget their children’s birthdays? Of course, she didn’t let her mother know that out loud. But she promised to keep the secret anyway. “I’m not going to give up though,” she told herself.
The next day, Ilakya set out to meet her best friend, Oviya. “Hmm…so you want to know your birthday. Well, I might have a plan” said the girl. Ilakya was on cloud nine. “Please tell me. I’ll even pay you” she said.
“There’s this soothsayer who lives on the outskirts of the village. She’s creepy but her predictions are always accurate. People don’t mingle with her because she can predict their deaths. Now, I’m sure she can do reverse hocus-pocus too. Just buy her something to eat and give her some money.” said her best friend.
Ilakya was elated yet again. “I can do that,” she thought happily. But the task was easier said than done. After two years of frugal spending and having to cover for expenses, Ilakya saved up enough to meet the soothsayer. She was glad that she’d cut down the candy intake. Otherwise, she never would’ve been ready.
On a sweltering summer day, she asked to borrow her mother’s bicycle. “I’m going to meet the soothsayer who lives on the outskirts of the village. I’ll be back this evening” she said and bundled up all the money in a bag. “No, Ilakya, wait. You mustn’t go there”, yelled her mother. But she was already out of earshot and hurtling away on the bicycle.
Her mother was worried. She’d never intended Ilakya to find out. She’d never intended Ilakya to find out that some of their kids, including Ilakya were adopted. She didn’t want Ilakya to find out that her husband found them in odd places.
They were either dumped because they were unwanted or because they were girls or sometimes both. The practice of dumping girls as soon as they were born was commonplace in regions that valued a male heir. Of course, the couple didn’t want to leave the children behind when they found them. So, they decided to raise them as their own.
They didn’t want to celebrate the kids’ birthdays on the day they got dumped by their actual parents because if push came to shove and if the kids found out they were adopted, they’d at least not hate that day. Amaravati thought that kids were delicate beings and thought it would be best to keep the dates hidden since she didn’t know how they’d react.
As Ilakya guessed, they were also pretty low on funds most times of the year. So, the couple came up with a plan to surprise all of their kids on random days even though they knew when their other kids were born. It was a hard choice but they decided to treat all of their kids equally.
Amaravati had no idea how she was going to console her child if she came home sobbing and accused her of lying. She had no idea if she’d come back home either. What if she set out on another quest to find her birth mother? When she could no longer contain the worry or calm her mind, she rushed to the farm where her husband worked.
It wasn’t difficult to spot her husband, Nataraj. He had a lean build and a moustache that you could spot from miles. Despite his stern look, he was a softie at heart. That’s why Nataraj secretly loved his daughters more. He thought that they were blessings and had to be protected at all times.
When Amaravati told him the news, he lost his temper for the first time. After spending a good amount of time scolding his wife for her carelessness, he asked her to sit on the bicycle and started pedalling in the direction of the soothsayer’s house as fast as he could. Amaravati couldn’t stop worrying and prayed to their village’s deity to keep her beloved daughter safe. There was no way she could see her daughter in uncontrollable tears.
After continuously pedalling for a few kilometres on the dirt road, they found their daughter. Neither of them could guess what Ilakya was feeling at the moment because her expressions gave nothing away.
To their relief, Ilakya flashed her toothless grin. “The old woman shooed me away. It seems she relies on spirits for guidance and can’t see them when she has a blocked nose. I knew she was phoney anyway. But I thought I should help her so I gave her some money. Poor thing. Why do you guys look like you’ve seen a ghost? Did her spirits follow me?”
Her parents laughed with tearful eyes and hugged her tightly. “You scared us, little girl”, said her father. “But I told you where I was going,” she said innocently. “Yes, she did. I forgot” said her mother sheepishly. Ilakya shook her head in disbelief and handed her mother the fruits. “Juice”, she said. Her mother gladly agreed and the three went home.
While Ilakya sipped on her juice, she mused on the day’s events. The old lady told her everything. She knew that she was adopted. At first, she felt like crying. Her parents had lied to her all along. Who was her real mother then? Would she have known her birthday?
After hearing her rant, the old lady asked her to suck it up because her parents had chosen to love her. They could’ve abandoned her but they didn’t. They chose to raise her but expected nothing in return.
It was then that she felt extremely grateful and stupid. The soothsayer then said that she’d reveal her birthday but Ilakya refused and gave her some money instead. The lady refused the money. “I didn’t let you know what you wanted to know. So, I can’t take it” she said. Ilakya slipped some money anyway before she thanked her and left the house, feeling like a grown-up. She also decided to keep this little secret to herself.
When all the kids grew up, they, like Ilakya, understood that birthdays came on fixed days. But nobody ever confronted Nataraj or Amaravati since Ilakya would make her siblings understand. (She still had the power to turn her siblings into her personal monkeys). Of course, she never let anyone know that she or her siblings were adopted after she decided that earlier.
So, the surprise birthdays always remained a tradition in their household long after the kids had grown up. Ilakya no longer needed to know her birthday. Her mother was right. It was more fun when she didn’t know when she would get her presents.