Hari Badrinath took a deep breath. The candles in front of him were reflected on his glasses and as the flames swayed and danced, his eyes gleamed with forgotten youthfulness and one could almost see the years drown in those shining pools. When he blew, the candles flickered and died. For a brief moment he had felt young again. As the crowd sang ‘Happy Birthday’, he beckoned his grand-daughter Shweta to help him cut the cake. With his gnarled and knotted fingers over her small and dainty ones, he cut a small piece off the top with lots of icing. His grand-daughter then carefully removed the piece, with all the concentration of a determined 11 year old, proceeded to smear it across his face. The little girl giggled hysterically as she painted her Baba’s face with green and red icing and the crowd laughed and encouraged her. Hari sat in the midst of it all; with a benign smile on his wrinkled face and let the child draw traces of cream moustache and cream eyebrows. When she finished the crowd praised her artwork and joked that Hari Baba looked almost young again.
Then his daughter cleared the table and the assembled ladies helped her cut the cake and lay the plates for the birthday party while the men dispersed to the various corners of the room; standing and sitting in groups and indulging in small talk until the food arrived. Hari slowly got up from his chair and shuffled out of the room to wash his face in the apartment’s only bathroom. Inside, he locked the door, against his daughter’s explicit warnings and turned the tap over the sink. He splashed the lukewarm water over his face and slowly wiped away the stains. Someone had switched on the music player and the steady beats of some indie pop song could be heard through the bathroom door. Hari removed as much of the icing as his quivering hands possibly could. He looked at himself in the mirror. His 85 year old self stared back at him.
‘Another year has come and gone and what have I to show for it?’ he wondered. ‘A few more wrinkles around my eyes, a few on my forehead and an ever shrinking body. Am I now closer to the steps of heaven or the pits of hell? Or maybe the plains of purgatory are calling me? Will not one of the thousand faces of the thousand Gods in Heaven, ever look down upon me and feel pity and give me another year to cherish and dread?’ As he mused, he groped behind in the air for the toilet seat and lowered it. He sat down with. He was sure his daughter would scold him for ruining the new corduroy pants she had bought him and his son-in-law would remind him of it for the next month or so. But Hari did not care. He knew that it was not spite that drove them to be so critical of his behaviour; it was the situation in which the family found itself at the end of every month. And this 29th of May happened to be his birthday. Hari’s son-in-law was a real estate broker by profession and worked diligently for the next deal and the next commission. His wife, Hari’s daughter, was a home cook who made and sold poppadum and samosas to the neighbourhood bakery. Yet, their combined earnings were barely sufficient to pay the rent and electricity and they had to skip Shweta’s school fees a couple of times. The fact that they had decided to celebrate his birthday at all had come as surprize to Hari. He had advised them that they would do well to spend the money on Shweta or something useful and productive for the house, but they refused to listen. Their financial situation did not in anyway, threaten their social standing in the neighbourhood. It had been a long while since they had entertained any guest at their ground floor apartment, and so they decided that Baba’s birthday was a good enough excuse to invite their friends over and show that they had not really fallen into such a dire economic condition as the general rumour was. And in their desire to be good hosts, they had spent Hari’s paltry monthly pension on a second hand stereo system for the party and a birthday cake.
Hari looked at his fingers, slick with water and faint icing. ‘How I wish I could just wash away the problems of my life like this icing,’ he thought. ‘If only things would be so easy. I could easily wipe my slate clean and start again. I could be strong and handsome and intelligent again. I could touch and shape people’s life again. I could even love Geeta again and maybe even tell her that I love her and treat her like she deserved.’ His dead wife’s memories brought a solitary drop of tear and it rolled down his eyes, slowing at the folds and wrinkles of his cheek and finally falling onto the tiled floor. He shifted his gaze from his hands to the tiny wet spot on the floor and stared at it with intense concentration; almost wishing that the drop would grow into a pool through which he could gaze at his past and think of things he had loved and people he had lost.
‘Papa! Papa! How many times have I told you not to lock from the inside,’ his daughter shouted through the flimsy door. ‘Now open it and come out. Your guests are waiting for you and your food will grow cold and all will go to waste if you don’t have it hot.’ Saying so, she walked back to the party.
Hari blinked his eyes and rubbed his knees absentmindedly, leaving a slight green icing stain on the crisp cream corduroy. He looked at the stain and smiled ruefully. ‘At least this is something that I can wash away.’ He got up and wiped away the last of the icing stains from his face and hands on the thin towel and ambled out the bathroom, forgetting his wishes. Wearing a small toothless smile on his withered face he went to face the crowd. It was his birthday after all and those wouldn’t come very often anymore.