In India, birthdays have often been the occasion to flaunt political muscle. And the southern states have been doing it for years.
Of course, the 66-kilo architect’s dream cake was only one of several aspects that marked the birthday celebrations of Puratchi Thalaivi – or revolutionary leader – who is also Amma. Among several interesting ways of celebrating a chief minister’s birthday, there were also gifts of governance. Jayalalithaa’s government offered 66 schemes to the state’s people. And of course, her followers gave blood, the safest way to establish your deepest dedication to your leader. And since 66 followers didn’t look impressive enough, 666 AIADMK volunteers donated blood. Clearly Jayalalithaa’s followers are good, god-fearing, decent folk, who shun soul-destroying English scary movies and would not dream of exposing themselves to thoughts of the devil – except in the form of political rivals. They have no idea that 666 is the number of the devil, the sign of Satan, and that Hollywood films thrive on this magic evil number. Never mind. If Amma turns 66, there must be 666 sons giving blood, no?
But then there are others who want to offer her India’s Parliament as a nice little birthday gift. Sure, why else, but to fulfill your untenable desires do birthday cakes exist. So there you had it – a mini-Parliament at your door, dear Amma. All 66 kilos of it. That is about 146 pounds – rather big for a cake (about 100 times bigger than the birthday cakes of ordinary mortals) but not a very heavyweight Parliament for the world’s largest democracy.
And here’s a knife for you to cut it with, Amma.
Excuse me? Is this okay? It’s great fun to use cakes to bring out the architect or sculptor in the baking artist, but aren’t there some people out there lurking silently, waiting to take offence whenever we get a little creative with our national symbols and treasures?
Remember what happened to Sachin Tendulkar a few years ago, when he cut a cake (his birthday was coming up) that looked like the Indian flag while touring the West Indies? He got slapped with criminal cases. He had violated Indian law, said well-meaning nutcases, and should be punished under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, and the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950. A far as I remember, poor Tendulkar had quite a few cases against him. Even the Rajya Sabha was asked how it could even consider accepting as a member a person such as him. One who had insulted the national honour, so to speak, and hurt the sentiments of Indians. One who had improperly used our revered emblems and names. One who was perhaps a criminal.
Anyway, the fact that Tendulkar had cut the cake (the focus of discontent – how could he cut, dismember, violate the integrity of India?!) outside India helped save him. But that is not the point. The point is that the Madras High Court Bench in Madurai was pretty active in the matter. It seemed that the Tamil people were hurt. They did not want the integrity of India cut and slashed by a cake knife.
So, I am a little curious about the sentiments of these Indian Tamils right now. Are they not hurt by their Amma cutting the Indian Parliament into tiny bits and chomping it up with her friends and followers? Is it acceptable to cut and eat a baked replica of Parliament, while it is unacceptable to cut and eat a baked replica of the national flag?
If no one is protesting, it shows that we have grown up a bit. At least for the moment. Let’s get one thing clear. There is nothing criminal about having fun with a fancy birthday cake and doing with it what must be done to cakes – ie cutting and eating it. But if there is something vaguely disgusting about it, it’s the lavishness and self-promotion that places one person so high up on a pedestal that her followers can believe that for her, claiming the highest seat of governance was a piece of cake.
But then, in India, birthdays have often been the occasion to flaunt political muscle. And the southern states have been doing it for years. N.T. Rama Rao and Karunanidhi made it a political fashion. Jayalalithaa belongs to that tradition of dramatic, over the top, ostentatious celebrations that believe ordinary life needs to be represented as larger-than life cardboard cut outs.
And northern India has taken to it as well. Mayawati has been celebrating her birthdays with unbelievable pomp and glory for years. Her birthdays are an occasion for the state to raise bizarre amounts of money that come largely from the poor of this very poor state. (A few years ago MLAs, MPs and ministers from Uttar Pradesh had been asked to raise Rs 100 crore as gift money for her birthday.) The cake usually depicts her age in kilos – like Amma’s does – and is, naturally, pretty huge. (And not quite the most ladylike way of celebrating your birthday.) The birthday party sparkles with diamonds and pearls, lilies from Holland and exotic orchids, in make-believe Bollywood sets, where flowers and sweets are measured in quintals. The birthday usually has a name – like swabhiman diwas (self-respect day) or arthik sahyog diwas (economic cooperation day) where the gifts marking the said day, ie birthday, reportedly go directly into the birthday girl’s bank.
But this year, Mayawati did not celebrate her birthday – on January 15 – with much pomp and glory. There was no cake worth talking about. And if there were collection drives, they were not talked about. Apparently because of the Muzaffarnagar riots that left so many dead and thousands displaced, many of whom are still in relief camps, suffering in abject deprivation. Perhaps because austerity is the new style statement, ever since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) took over. Maybe the time for showcasing opulence as a symbol of Dalit pride by the best known contemporary Dalit leader is over. Perhaps it is back to basics for serious politicians who want to make a comeback.
But only in the north. The AAP has not had such an effect in the south. If it had, Jayalalitha would perhaps just had a spoonful of payasam for her birthday. Not the Indian Parliament.
Antara Dev Sen is Editor, The Little Magazine.
Antara Dev Sen