on birthdays and candles left burning.
A strange thought passed through my mind as I boarded my flight to Delhi yesterday:
I almost wasn’t sure I wanted to return to India.
Indophile that I am, this past month in Indonesia has brought me back to exactly what I love so much about travel – that all-encompassing feeling of discovery.
Picking up new phrases in Bahasa – phrases like selamat pagi for good morning, terima kasih for thank you, and hati hati! for be careful.
Falling in love with new dishes like nasi goreng, fried rice served with a fried egg – because you can never have enough fried food in your life.
And diving into new histories of how and why two adjacent islands – Bali and Java, for instance – can adhere to two totally different religions – Hinduism and Islam.
But what happens when you start calling a country home, even for just a little while, is that you slowly lose that initial rush of discovery – the natural high that can only come from newness, and which loses its strength the longer you stay somewhere.
* * *
I arrived at my apartment in south Delhi to learn today is my flatmate Anokhi’s birthday. So tonight, my other flatmate Mallika and I did what you always do to your friends on their birthday – we locked her in her bedroom.
Mallika’s aunt and cousin then proceeded to enter our apartment with a chocolate-and-cherry birthday cake in tow, which Mallika shoved a few candles into before I released Anokhi with much flair and fanfare and we assaulted her with a fantastically off-key rendition of the happy birthday song.
Next, Anokhi bent down to blow out the candles, holding her epicly long braid out of the way. I’m used to people taking a big breath before doing so, maybe something akin to the Big Bad Wolf huffing and puffing and blowing things down.
But Anokhi was far more gentle; in fact, she blew the four candles out one by one, taking another breath before each. Except she missed one – a bright pink one in the corner, its orange flame left flickering.
Obviously concerned that her wish might be considered null and void, I pointed this omission out to her.
“No, we always leave one candle burning,” Mallika told me, “It’s for long life.”
Anokhi began slicing the cake, then Mallika’s aunt took the top bit of icing and placed it in Anokhi’s mouth. You can surely picture what came next if you’ve ever been to a western wedding: lots of cake being shoved into mouths, lots of icing being smeared across faces like some kind of sugar-based facial scrub.
I pointed this out to Mallika, telling her that we tend to do the whole messy-icing thing at weddings, not birthdays.
“Yes, but there are no cakes at Hindu weddings,” she said.
“Only at Christian weddings,” her aunt chimed in.
And with that observation pointed out, as simple as it was profound, I realized how easy it is to take this world around me right now for granted. That differences like a candle left burning on a cake and icing smeared at birthday parties are always there; it’s just up to us to stay open and discover them.
As we finally sat down to eat our cake, I asked Anokhi what she’d done with the candle.
“It’s still burning, in my room,” she said, pointing across our lounge area. I peeked in and, just as she said, saw that lone pink candle, now little more than a stub of wax, still going strong on her desk.