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Kate Darnton

In India, riches breed birthday excess

By Kate Darnton
November 1, 2009

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NEW DELHI
REMEMBER BIRTHDAY parties when you were little? There was a cake - one of reasonable size, slightly lopsided because Mom hadn’t lined the layers up perfectly before applying the chocolate fudge frosting. There were balloons and party hats and a couple kids from the neighborhood, who gave you the standard gifts: a book or a Barbie or a Matchbox car. And that was about it.

Fast-forward to 2009. You and your spouse live in the city, yuppie careers in high gear. You have two cute kids. November rolls around and it’s time to plan little Parker’s fifth birthday bash. Before you know it, you’ve rented the community room at the golf club you just joined. You’ve had invitations printed up. Now you’ve got to hire the caterer and track down that live animal guy who your neighbor had at her kid’s party last month. Then there’s the piñata, the party favors, and the cake that Parker insists must be in the shape of the Millennium Falcon shooting through outer space . . .

Isn’t there a recession going on, people? Then why are kiddy birthday parties so out of control? And this isn’t just an American phenomenon. It’s a global crisis.

A few months ago, we up and moved the family to India. The American economy was tanking, and my husband was offered a dynamic new job in Delhi. India! How radically different that would be! And how wonderful for our two daughters, who would finally understand that there is a vast world outside the calm, tree-lined streets of Boston’s Back Bay.

The culture shock turned out to be underwhelming. Sure, every morning, we dodge the cows that stand in the busiest intersections. A few weeks ago, a beggar thrust a snake into our auto rickshaw, hoping for a few spare coins. People stop us regularly when we’re out, asking to take photos of our fair-skinned, curly-haired 3-year-old.

Still, there’s a lot of the familiar, too. Delhi is a vibrant international city. At our local grocery store, I can find just about anything the girls might miss: Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, Rice Krispies, Oreos.

But at the least, I thought, I had escaped excessive toddler birthday parties.

Oh, how naive.

In the three months we’ve lived here, we have attended seven or eight birthdays for the children of upwardly mobile Indians. Toddler birthday party inflation has Delhi firmly in its grip. In fact, the parties of Boston and Newton can’t hold a candle to the epic extravaganzas of Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. Once you enter past the guards and the ushers, through the arcade of balloons, you are greeted by a buffet of Bar Mitzvah-like largess: dim sum, sushi, pasta, salad, Indian food, kiddy junk galore. There are cakes that rise on remote-controlled elevators, lit by rings of sparklers. There are chocolate fondue fountains, ice cream sundae stations, and endless Indian sweets. As for entertainment, the more, the better: elephant, horse, and camel rides; magic shows; face painters; temporary tattoo artists; train rides; fireworks. When you leave, you are handed not just a goodie bag, but also a wrapped present that will outshine the gift that you had brought for the birthday boy.

Each child attends with an entourage: One mother, clad in designer jeans, heels, and shades, her make-up heavy. She makes a beeline for the lounge area where she’ll air-kiss her girlfriends, then gossip for the remainder of the evening. The occasional dad shows up, still in his business suit. He heads for the opposite corner from his wife, where he’ll talk cricket scores and Sensex prices till it’s time to go. Besides the children, it’s the ayahs who constitute the largest segment of the birthday population. These nannies are usually slight young women who shadow their charges a half-step behind, spoon-feeding them. The nannies themselves are not allowed to eat from the buffet, but receive small boxed dinners to take away.

When I envisioned my life in India, I never dreamed of this.

Over the last decade, as India’s economy has boomed, Indian society has seen the emergence of a new entrepreneurial flashy-class. This Mercedes-driving, world-traveling segment is garishly replicating the worst excesses of yuppie life in America: designer T-shirts, SUVs, expensive private schools, elaborate spa treatments, and, of course, extravagant birthday bashes. Their money is fresh, and they flaunt it.

When you leave one of these birthday bashes, everyday India assaults your senses: the darkness, the haze, the stench of burning garbage and cow dung. You get in your car, side-stepping a family of squatters by the side of the road. Though they live side-by-side in their slums and mansions, the garbage-picker and the businessman will never exchange “Namastes.’’

We came to India hoping to expand our children’s worldview. So far, however, the view seems pretty much the same: the rich are getting richer; and the poor, well, they’re still dirt poor. And the birthday parties, they’re extreme.

Kate Darnton is a writer and editor living in New Delhi.

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