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Indians splurge on children's birthdays

NEW DELHI -- Inside the chandeliered party hall of an upscale hotel, with its canopies of balloons and sparkly lights, three video cameramen and two photographers jostled like paparazzi to get a glimpse of the guest of honor.

Waiters in black tie waded through the crowd, serving endless silver trays of chicken tikka kebabs, grilled shrimp, and samosas. Several deejays spun fast-tempo Punjabi pop that pulsated from refrigerator-size speakers. There were cocktails for the adults and cotton candy for the children.

This was, after all, a birthday party for a 2-year-old -- curly-haired Taisa Arora. On a recent Saturday night, she wore her Strawberry Shortcake Mary Janes and a princess-like sequined outfit, and yawned as her grandmother cradled her amid the excitement of 125 guests.

In India, weddings have long been extravagant celebrations of a lifetime. But with prosperity growing in urban India, more parents are spending exorbitant amounts on children's birthday parties.

"The birthday party is the new wedding in India, and the sky is the limit," said Rakesh Gupta, a party planner who has seen his business double in the past few years. "It's a serious industry now, and people want to spend lavishly and outdo each other. People in India don't like to save. They want to enjoy life and live for today after so many years of poverty and struggle."

For India's wealthier classes, birthday parties are a chance to network with business colleagues and to reunite relatives. Perhaps most important, the parties are a source of pride for Indians looking to demonstrate their new wealth, as parents try to impress one another with opulent soirees.

The Indian economy has experienced record growth rates of 8 percent to 9 percent during the past three years, in part because the once-socialist country has opened its markets globally Although India has the largest number of poor people struggling to survive on $1 a day, its middle class has more than tripled in the past two decades, according to the World Bank.

In cities, swanky stores hawk shiny bathroom fixtures and $2,000 Jacuzzis, and television ads show smiling housewives buying washing machines.

When it comes to birthday parties, the change has been striking. Gone is the quiet birthday visit to a Hindu temple and a simple box of Indian sweets. Now there's the frazzled party planner to hire, invitations with calligraphy to buy, and elephant and camel rides to plan. Indian banks, which have long offered low-interest loans for weddings, now offer similar deals for birthday parties. The parties are often more for the parents than for the children, a way for them to show their generosity. They are also a way they can afford to treat friends, relatives, and business partners to a lavish night out.

At Taisa's bash, her father, a real estate mogul, shook hands and slapped the backs of relatives and business associates while a moon bounce was set up next to a merry-go-round. "We're proud parents. We want to celebrate in a big way," said Gagan Arora, 27. His wife, Shivali Arora, 24, said, "Some families in India have this kind of money now, so why not celebrate?"

Indeed, India is a place of confounding contrasts. According to the United Nations, 42 percent of India's children are malnourished, a higher rate than in most African countries. Children are a fixture on bustling city streets, their hands outstretched for rupees.

Not far from the Arora birthday party, barefoot girls performed cartwheels and twisted themselves into pretzel-like shapes as they begged for rupees. "Hungry," they cried.