An 18th birthday celebrated in a small tribal school in a rural village in Southern India, with a waxy carrot, a sari and lots and lots of menthos! This isn’t exactly what most people could say would describe their 18th birthday, but it pretty much sums up mine.
Coincidentally, a week before my birthday, some family friends from Bangalore came to Coimbatore and decided to treat Sarah, Caitlin and I to a wonderful birthday dinner. The took us out for dinner in a glamorous hotel where I had non veg (delicious tiger prawns) and humous and all sorts of tasty tasty food! We were spoiled not only with food but with Indian bubbly and mohijtos, (getting more along the lines of a typical 18th). Brenda is from Northern Ireland, and after a recent visit returned with a whole pile of fantastic gifts from my family there. She sat me down on her bed in the hotel and forced me to open them all at once. There was a beautiful selection of sweeties, chocolate, treatments for my sun damaged hair and facemasks for my dust inflicted skin, lovely comfy PJ’s and amongst others my favourite present of all (besides the sweets…) A PAIR OF BRIGHT ORANGE NEON BIRKENSTOCKS! The evening finished with some cake, being Indian it wasn’t like how my Mummy makes it, but it was birthday cake all the same, smeared across my face. Apparently this is some kind of tradition in India…to smear cake all over the birthday girl’s face and then stuff it in her mouth and feed her. I was perplexed, but amused by the celebration and quickly ran to the bathroom to clean it off!
The following week passed quickly and by the 28th November my sweets were finished, shoes broken in and hair feeling soft again. I was unsure of Indian tradition surrounding birthdays, the children would give their teachers and sometimes classmates sweets…did that mean I should give the children sweets or the teachers? Or nobody?! Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what to do and when the kids discovered it was my birthday they started asking if I would bring them chocolate. I was slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing and ran to the comforting words of Patti. She laughed at me and told me the best thing to do would be to not tell anyone and hide away from all of that nonsense.
Unfortunately it was too late for that! In the end, I enlisted the Tamil speaking skills of one of our pupils Vegashni, and headed into Anaikatti in an attempt to find cake. We approached her uncle’s shop and some words were exchanged in Tamil. ‘Akka,’ she said, ‘the cake master is out of town.’ My heart sank! I had finally found a solution and now I had to rethink the sweets, cake, teachers, pupils equation in my head. As Sarah watched my eyes become full of panic, hers found something on the shelves below. The cake master may have left town, but he left behind him some cake! Vegashni’s uncle mumbled that it was all made the day before yesterday. However, after contemplating my options, I decided that living inI ndia, I was sure my fellow teachers had eaten worse than a few days old cake. I bought 30 pieces of chocolate cake and a few pieces of a strange looking pink cake as Caitlin doesn’t like chocolate and snuck back into school to hide it in the fridge.
In the morning, whilst I was showering, Caitlin decorated the room with some beautiful birthday banners and sparkly sprinkly things. Then I opened my cards from home, had a few tears and approached the mammoth task of putting on a sari. On your birthday you’re expected to wear nice clothes, lots of jewellery and just generally look pretty. Whilst I have worn a sari quite a lot since I’ve been here, I still haven’t mastered the technique of putting it on. Every time I try I’m convinced I’ve got it, until I double check with Sulo and she finds something which isn’t pleated correctly or a massive bit of material not tucked into the right place! Sulo helped me with wrapping, pleating, tucking and folding, I draped myself in earrings and bangles and finally I made it out the door to school.
The children were adorable, they are so impressed by us wearing sari’s and showed it by telling me I looked beautiful all day long. I was showered with not only compliments but also adorable little gifts. I’m a little suspicious by the origin of these- I reckon the earrings probably came from someone else’s ears-but the children’s careful wrapping with paper or the making of little boxes to put them in filled me with happiness! When they inevitably asked how old I was and I said that I was 18, my kids eyes opened wide with shock. ‘Akka, my brother is 19!’ exclaimed Manoj and everyone giggled. I’m not sure whether that was an attempt to set us up or simply an expression of surprise, but none of the children could believe that I was only 18 and had come so far from home. They kept reminding me about my family and couldn’t comprehend how I hadn’t even spoken to them on my birthday. The internet had been down for about a week and a half and the children asking all these questions about home caused me to struggle to keep the tears at bay. However the children kept me going, shaking my hands and smiling and singing to me and wishing me a very happy birthday.
During Kanji, Caitlin and I ran back to our kitchen and smuggled the cake to the staff room. I awkwardly presented it and smiled, telling people to help themselves. Half the teachers looked around in confusion, it took them a while to grasp that it was my birthday. Then they all proceeded to burst into song. Now, Indians sing Happy Birthday a little differently to us so I just stood there, absolutely mortified, whilst they all clapped very quickly and sang strangely and then all came to shake my hand before taking a piece of cake.
That evening I went on our usual 5pm walk, chatted with the girls and did some preparation for school the next day. After dinner, we were chatting some more (in the dark) about how hilarious the presents Sarah and Caitlin had scavenged for me were. They included some square tuppaware, (I have been on a 3 month long hunt to find tuppaware which isn’t round!) lots of mentos (a favourite after school snack) and cotton buds (to clean my scabby nose piercing). Suddenly Sarah jumped up from the bed and ran into the kitchen, Caitlin followed but the told me not to move. The next thing I know, I was being sung happy birthday for the second time that day, but, instead of a cake, Sarah was holding a carrot decorated with candles. We had such a laugh about it and I went to sleep that night feeling happy and at home in Vidya Vanam, Anaikatti.