Unlike most other people on this planet, Charu’s birthday occurs only once every four years. That’s right, Charu is one of those few mortals whose birthdays fall on the twenty ninth of February. Charu grew up in a chawl in Lower Parel, right next to Phoenix Mills where her father worked. As for many other chawl-dwellers, Charu’s birthday was not a day of joyous abandon rounded off with drinking and dancing at the neighbourhood discotheque.
However Charu’s father was very fond of his eldest daughter and on her birthday, he would bring back a box of laddoos or jelebis when he came home from work. Charu’s mother would prepare something nice, may be some puran polis and some aamti which they would distribute among their neighbours. They say it’s the thought that counts and this was perfectly true in Charu’s household. Without spending too much money, Charu’s parents made a big fuss when Charu or any of her three other siblings had their birthdays. In Charu’s case, if it was not a leap year, the first of March was celebrated as her birthday.
‘Why don’t we celebrate it on the twenty eighth instead of the first?’ an impatient Charu once asked her parents.
‘Because my sweet little girl, you were not yet born on the twenty eighth,’ Charu’s mother sensibly told her. ‘So, it’s better to celebrate your birthday on the first of March, a day after you were born.’
Things did not change as Charu grew older, until she was married off to Paresh, a lowly clerk in Mantralaya. Paresh did not share Charu’s parents’ attitude to birthdays.
‘I don’t believe in celebrating birthdays,’ Paresh told her within a few days of getting married. He did not add ‘do you?’ to the end of his sentence. Charu did not have the guts to contradict him, which to him was confirmation that she too hated the decadent habit of celebrating birthdays.
‘I think the last time I celebrated my birthday was when I was ten years old and Papa bought me a Five Star bar for the occasion. What’s the point of celebrating an addition to one’s age?’ he asked Charu even though they were both very young and the addition of a year would not have aged them greatly. That conversation set the tone for the rest of their married life.
A few months after their wedding, Paresh’s birthday arrived. Charu gently reminded him of the event the previous day. Before she could even suggest a celebration, he turned on her ferociously and asked her, ‘so what if it’s my birthday?’
It took three whole years after their wedding for a leap year to arrive. By that time, Charu knew that Paresh would not even remember that it was her birthday. She turned out to be wrong.
‘Today is your birthday, isn’t it?’ Paresh asked her while she served him breakfast and lapsed into his habitual silence. Charu dumbly nodded her head and bit her lower lip. As soon as Paresh went off to work, she locked herself in the toilet and burst into tears. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Paresh had forgotten her birthday. But to remember it, to mention it and to not even wish her a happy birthday! He might as well have stabbed her and then rubbed salt into the wound. If only she were still with her parents, they would have …. Oh! What was the point?
Except for his attitude to birthdays, Paresh was a good husband. He did not talk much, believing it to be a waste of energy, when a frown, a smile or a hand gesture would suffice. Charu had never been a talkative girl, but after her marriage, she became even less so. Paresh continued to take note of Charu’s birthday whenever it actually arrived every leap year, though he never wished her, let alone get her a gift. Charu soon taught herself to not feel hurt, succeeding every alternate leap year.
This lifestyle continued even after Charu and Paresh moved out of Paresh’s parents’ house in Girgaum and bought a small flat at Virar. By that time Paresh had experienced twelve more birthdays, and Charu three more, but none of the fifteen birthdays had been celebrated.
They had two children, a boy and a girl. Initially their birthdays were also ignored and the children were too young to object, but after they started school, Paresh and Charu had no choice but to do something, albeit on a small scale. They would buy some sweets and the birthday boy or birthday girl would distribute them among their neighbours and school friends. As the children became older, their birthday festivities became more expensive. New clothes were demanded for birthdays, even though they always bought clothes for Diwali. Paresh would turn up his nose at the cakes, sweets and clothes, but still do the children’s bidding with a grumble.
The children did well at school and fulfilled their parent’s dreams, the son growing up to be an engineer and the daughter, a doctor. After the daughter got married and went off to Madras, she started celebrating her birthday and her husband’s in style. Two years later, Charu’s son got married and birthday celebrations became much bigger. The son blindly obeyed his wife, who came from a rich family that believed birthday celebrations ought to be lavish. The son and daughter-in-law lived in a posh modern flat at Kandivli and Paresh and Charu would go over for the birthday parties.
The arrival of one grandchild after another meant Charu got to attend at least one birthday party every two months. When the daughter and her husband moved back to Mumbai from Chennai with their two daughters, the parties only got bigger.
Despite all this, neither Paresh not Charu celebrated their birthdays. The son and daughter implicitly believed that, just like their father, their mother did not want to celebrate her birthday. Charu was tempted to tell her children that she too wanted a birthday party. Yes, she would like to cut one of those huge birthday cakes with white sugar on top, when people around her clapped. Or buy new clothes for her birthday. But Charu was too shy to tell anyone all that.
One day when Paresh and Charu were visiting their son and daughter-in-law, the daughter-in-law remarked, ‘I have a friend whose birthday falls on the twenty ninth of February.’
‘Mother’s birthday is on the twenty ninth,’ Charu’s son said.
‘Maaji, I know you hate celebrating your birthday. But I do wish you’d agree to celebrate it just once,’ the daughter-in-law said.
Paresh smirked. There was silence.
‘And this year, I will be sixty,’ Charu softly said. Indeed, not only was it a leap year, it was also to be her sixtieth birthday.
‘Why don’t we celebrate your birthday this year?’ Charu’s daughter-in-law asked.
Charu hesitated and said ‘No, don’t bother’ in a faltering voice, that was almost a sob. Her daughter-in-law gave her a strange look, but said nothing more.
On her birthday, Charu woke up as usual and went about her chores. She sighed once. She was now sixty. Soon she would be dead. If only she could muster the courage to ask for a birthday party before she left this world!
At around ten in the morning, as she was chopping vegetables in the kitchen, the bell rang.
‘Birthday girl, answer the door,’ Paresh told her, looking up from his newspaper for a second.
It was as if a storm had been unleashed. If Paresh had forgotten her birthday, it wouldn’t have mattered. But to remember it and not even wish her a Happy Birthday! The sheer cruelty of it all! At that moment Charu hated Paresh more than anything else in the world. She wanted to hurt him as he had hurt her all those years. With tear filled angry eyes, Charu looked at Paresh and then at the sharp kitchen knife in her right hand. Without further ado, she stabbed Paresh in his neck with the knife. Since she was standing to his side, she managed to sever his carotid artery. A jet of blood spurted out. Paresh grunted once and dropped his head to the table. It was obvious that he was dead. Charu put the knife down on the table next to Paresh and sat down on a chair. Her body was trembling, but there was no regret. What should she do now? As Charu tried to compose herself, she realised that whoever was at the door was ringing the bell furiously. Who could it be? Nobody was expected at this hour. Charu wiped the blood off her arms and saree, went to the door and opened it.
“Happy Birthday To You”, her children and grandchildren sang in a chorus. They came crowding into the hall. Her daughter-in-law had a huge cake in her hands. Her son-in-law carried a brown bag from Bombay Stores with a nine-yard long Paithani saree in it.
‘Where’s Papa?’ her son demanded? ‘When we suggested to him that you might like to celebrate your birthday, he said he was sure you did. He said he had been a complete fool .. and he’s just realised and …. He regrets it so much and …. Never mind, never mind. He’s planning to apologise for not celebrating your birthday all these years.’ He walked over to the kitchen to look for his father as his wife set the cake on the table.