Portrait of a Time
Oh, the birthdays — such bloodthirsty, gift-hungry, worrisome affairs. Until we were 13, everyone was welcome. No conscientious mother would rob her child's classmate of an invitation for fear of retribution. Our parties were a youthful bacchanalia, no sobriety in the room — save the rueful tired-gray smoke that draped the chaperones' faces. There were streamers and magicians and bouncy houses and return gifts — little bags with chocolates and maybe, if the birthday boy or girl was rich, a Spiderman action figure or a monster truck or — god forbid — a pencil case. Some parents dared to take us to swimming pools, where we all urinated freely, as if bathrooms could never quite be enough. We forced each other under until one of us cried or swam away, lurking in the deep end until the anger had passed. We raced and cannonballed, and the children on the margins — the children that could not swim as well or did not play with us at recess — still made it in, crossed the city walls before nightfall.
As a child, my parents taught me many things: some magical (don’t make faces; if the winds change direction, your face will get stuck that way), some important (call your grandparents). But my family has never been religious. I was never asked to memorize prayers or to place my faith in rituals. At home, our religion was nothing more than my grandfather’s nightly retellings of the Ramayana, whispered into our ears. Our trips to temples, few and far between, felt like visiting distant relatives — people I had only vaguely heard of and never really known.