The ‘happy birthdays’ and ‘congratulations’ ring loud and clear, glasses clink to say cheers and the home-baked cake is often yum too. It’s a party alright but a distinctly surreal one with family and friends reduced to little squares on screens, cheering the online celebrations along. So there’s no one to smear cake on the birthday girl’s face and promises instead of gifts as every guest -- not half as many as most party hoppers would like -- is kept at a ‘you-can-see-but-can’t-touch’ distance, the party itself taking on a futuristic, otherworldly quality to remember in a post coronavirus tomorrow.
In middle and upper class homes, birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and even pre-wedding celebrations have gone virtual after March 25, when the pan India lockdown came into force. Reducing distances but also enhancing them, the shared parties are dependent, of course, on the partygoer’s broadband connection or mobile data package.
Mohammad Omar, a Masters student at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who returned to India in March, had a 22nd birthday he will always remember. He said he was feeling really low on his birthday on April 3, but a video conference cheered him up. "All my cousins and friends arranged a video conference which I was unaware of. My cousin who lives next door called me over and I was stunned to see my friends and cousins waiting at a video conference on her laptop," the 22-year-old from Ghaziabad said.
"They sang for me, we even danced on a few songs and I cut the cake baked by my mother, but missed being smeared with icing by my friends and cousins," he told PTI.
Children are also trying to wrap their heads around the strange birthday celebrations. Parents are struggling to explain to their children why a mega bash is not possible this year.
Shahana Datta, who turned eight on April 7, missed her friends and cousins who would come to her Noida home every birthday, but could not make it this time.
"I felt very sad that I could not meet my friends and cousins on my birthday. But my mother made a cake for me and when I was cutting it, my cousins and friends joined in on a video call to sing for me," she told PTI.
Shahana said her mother has promised her many gifts “once coronavirus dies” and the lockdown is over. The young ones just can’t figure out what the big deal about COVID-19 is.
Neetu Thakur said her son Vedant was extremely upset on his seventh birthday on April 15 as he could not understand why his party couldn’t happen in a mall or a banquet hall like every other year. "To cheer him up, I decorated the entire house with whatever material at hand, baked a cake for him and made him connect with his cousins and grandparents on video call," said Thakur, a resident of Srinivaspuri in Delhi.
"I bought two-three small gifts from nearby shops and promised my son that when the lockdown opens, I will buy his favourite toys and lots of other gifts," she told PTI.
The blues have hit other celebrations too.
I H Rehman, an environment expert who lives in Ghaziabad, said his 24th marriage anniversary on April 15 was a sombre affair with a quiet dinner and a home-baked cake.
The 53-year-old said he has promised to buy his wife a "big gift" once the lockdown is lifted.
In a non-coronavirus year, Anindya Basu and his family would have rung in the Bengali New Year by going out for a series of feasts with friends and relatives in town. But the plans had to be tweaked this year.
“This year, we spent a formidable amount of time calling up all the relatives and wishing them. The kids dressed up in new clothes, and were made to sit down for a detailed lesson on the significance of the day in our culture, after which we treated ourselves to a homemade gala lunch,” the Kolkata-based Basu said.
Basu and his wife Madhushree, both foodies, whipped up an exquisite menu comprising quintessential Bengali delicacies like ‘ghee bhaat’ (rice served with clarified butter) and ‘katla maccher kalia’ (Catla fish curry).
Many others also took to Twitter to share how they are celebrating various special occasions. Prometheus School in Noida hosted a special morning assembly to celebrate Baisakhi, the harvest festival. In an online video chat, students and teachers dressed up in traditional attire and shook a leg to some Punjabi music tracks.
A couple had to postpone their wedding due to the lockdown. However, they shared a post on how their friends threw them a virtual sangeet party to make the day memorable.
“Our friends threw us a 'BawaMani' Virtual Sangeet Party since our wedding couldn’t take place this weekend! Our hearts are full of love for these bums who made our day,” the bride tweeted.
Theatre actor Dipali Bhasin’s family chalked out an extensive itinerary for her “quarantine birthday”, a picture of which she shared on Twitter.
It started with “breakfast in bed”, and had activities like “movie viewing”, “free/nap time”, “cocktail hour”, “dinner” and a “surprise at 6”, she said.
Extraordinary times sometimes call for extraordinary gestures.
Like this one from police in Punjab’s Mansa district which delivered a cake at the doorstep of a one-year-old. The warm gesture of the police personnel won many hearts and left the parents of the girl elated.
There are also some who just can’t stick to online. A man in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district demonstrated birthday over enthusiasm when he defied the lockdown with a big party on his 10-year-olld son’s birthday.
A case has been registered against the man, who is a trader, and some unidentified persons after a video of the event went viral on social media, according to the police.
Till such time when the shadow of the pandemic vanishes, "Happy birthday to you" on video may just become the new normal – for connected India.