The lot of us arrived just as the cake was being cut. The lady of the evening, buttoned into a pink frock with matching scarf tucked around her ears- well, she was running around somewhere below eye level, weaving around adult legs, chased by a shrieking train of daddy's friends' kids. I handed her the present we'd picked up on the way, and although mummy urged her to say thank you, all she had for us were beaming hugs. As I was about to concede that some kids can be nice, she wondered loudly why this box was lighter than the others. Ran off again to stow away her new treasure in the next room where a towering pile of packages was collecting on the bed. Branded bags and cascades of ribbons and lurid birthday cards from Bulbul Pishi addressed to a kid who couldn't read yet. I began to regret having wrapped ours in "classy" newspaper.
The population was now drifting towards the buffet table. Haggling over the size of the biryani chicken- "no, smaller, smaller please." Pink paper napkins certifying that our mutton chaap was, indeed, courtesy Nathuram Caterers. We wandered around, plates in hand, following my more self-assured friend at a safe distance, watching in admiration as she flitted from cluster to people cluster, dropping a comment here, a smattering of laughter there. I theorised in my mind as to the origin of the phrase 'social butterfly'. Jeweled heels crossed smartly over trousered knees. Lipstick stained the rims of crumpled plastic glasses in the dustbins. A little girl sobbed because someone had stolen the toffees she got out of the khoi bag. The cake was pink too, with inch-high sugar people dotting a strawberry landscape. We washed it down with discreet swigs of something stronger.
As the night wore on, it was the grown-ups, however, who started drooping rapidly. Rubbing of kajal-ed eyes; someone grumbled about a deadline the next morning. At any given moment the verandah was found to be crammed with people out for a quick smoke. The kids were still having a ball. Probably all that sugar. The streamers had come off the walls; the khoi bag was reduced to a bedraggled glittery wreck that a group of toddler boys, with typical machismo, were using as a football. The toddler girls, led by the aforementioned lady of the evening, were ripping balloons off the furniture legs and jumping on them with no obvious intent. When they succumbed and flatly exploded, they were not discouraged. Didi, please get me another. Here, tie it for me, didi please.
I reached up obligingly and pulled off some more, handing them to the jostling throng. A particularly expressive friend of mine, watching, with evil intent growing in his brain, suddenly leaned forward and snatched one out of my hands. "Here, let me show you how it's done."
Wham. Full force of a size 10 boot down on red elastic. Stunned silence. Open mouthed wonder. Then, slowspreading delight. Excited grins. Do it again. Again, again.
No stopping us now. Through a tiny hole in that tight stretched atmosphere, a whisper of recklessness, a whiff of juvenile joy had escaped, and nobody wanted to plug it up. We were grabbing, ripping, wrestling down whole streams of balloons to the floor, fighting to see who could destroy them fastest. Bang. Wham. Stamping with shoes, stabbing with stilletos, smothering in your arms, somebody enthusiastically elbow dropping his victim into submission. The kids screamed with glee, and we showed them how to join in. That's it, harder sonny, jump with both feet, you can do it, come on, it's just a balloon, and it's fun isn't it, you want more, of course, there's plenty, go crazy. More, more.
Soon, the dropouts emerged from the verandah, drawn either by the series of explosions or the sudden loud laughter that no children could make. And this is the part of that evening that I remember best. They came in, a little groggy, a bit bemused, but nobody wanted to know what's going on here. A few sheepish smiles did the rounds; an adventurous kaku cheered us, and soon all was pandemonium. Of course they joined in- they didn't have much of a choice. Elegant chignons came undone, sari pallus flapped, elderly uncles romped with ten year olds, parents exhorted their offspring on in the mad frenzy. It was better than fireworks, and probably louder than the stipulated decibel level imposed during Diwali. Irate neighbours complained later about those horrible noisy children keeping decent people up at unholy hours. The children themselves maybe learned a thing or two about the techniques of anarchy. But nobody stopped until every balloon in that apartment had been punctured and given way to a satisfying bang. When it was finally done, we stood and looked around at the awful mess- the smears of cake all over the floor, the tattered bits of elastic floating everywhere, the rented chairs overturned- and the gaggle of bright-eyed children, breathless, bubbling over with giggles, hardly able to believe that adults could be so cool.
Somebody glanced at a watch. It was getting late. Parents rounded up their offspring, others collected shoes and coats. One by one we muttered our goodnights, filed out of the room and down the narrow stairs. "You could have saved a few for me," the birthday girl's grandmother was heard remarking. I knew I ought to be tired, but I couldn't stop smiling. The friend who had started it all winked at me. "Lucky bastards. I never had such a brilliant birthday when I was a kid." He only looked puzzled when I squeezed his arm happily and spun twice on the spot. For how could I explain to him or the laughing stars above how wonderful those few words sounded... "When I was a kid."