Birthday means donkey

Francis Thomas writes on February’s theme, ‘birthdays’.

Illustration by Harshita Borah

Illustration by Harshita Borah

There are four of us, and our birthday parties are the four social events of the year for our colony. The colony is full of kids, all the kids have birthdays and some of them have parties, but nobody has parties like ours because nobody else has a father like ours.

It goes like this.

Amma painstakingly prepares the birthday party feast. It’s almost always the same, and always, always, delicious.

First, there is a colourful sweet drink – lime juice or Rasna or Tang or on some years, Limca or Fanta. Never Coke – someone once told Amma that you can use Coke to clean toilets and dissolve teeth and we were never allowed to bring Coke into the house after that.

Second, the sandwiches. Pudina chutney and butter on soft white bread, cut into crust-less little rectangles, and the less-loved but equally divine tomato-onion-cucumber-butter sandwiches, soft, but with the crunch of raw onion.

Third, potato chips, salted and chilli variants, fresh and hot from Shobha Bakery.

And finally, gulab jamuns drowned in syrup, with the centres perfectly, slightly, undercooked.

Before plating, of course, the cake has to be cut. For some reason, I can only remember having Black Forest cakes, although I’m sure there must have been other flavours over the years.

When enough children are assembled, Appa brings out his guitar, and Amma brings out the cake, dressed with the same number of candles as the birthday child’s age. The fan is turned off, and the candles are lit. Everyone begins to perspire, the talcum powder caking the faces of our dressed-up friends slowly starts to run.

When all the candles are flaming, we begin to sing. Appa leads us. When the final “Happy birthday to youuuuu” dies away, the birthday child blows out the candles and cuts the cake with the knife to which Amma has tied a little ribbon, and everyone sings “And may God bless you and may God bless you and may God bless whoever’s birthday it isssss….Happy birthday to youuuuu.” Amma feeds the birthday child a slice of the cake and then carries the rest in to slice up and plate along with the rest of the goodies and the four of us troop around, passing out the plates.

Amma brings the sandwiches and chips around again on large platters, offering seconds and thirds. And though they are delicious, very few kids take a refill.

Instead, they wolf down their snacks and run to the kitchen to leave their little paper plates and cups and wash their hands and assemble in the living room.

Because once everyone is done, the birthday child takes the old, cotton-stuffed, colourful softball and presents it to Appa, who is reading the newspaper in his bedroom and Appa dutifully receives it and comes out to the living room where the children have already moved the furniture to the corners, and he says “Is everyone ready to play Donkey?” and all the children scream “Yes!”

Appa is a tall, dark man, with a serious job, handling the administration of government laboratories. He is a well-respected member of the church, and is invited across the world to speak at Catholic events and retreats. He tucks his t-shirts into his formal trousers and always carries a handkerchief. He is a serious man. He is a serious man, except when he plays donkey.

Every year, he solemnly re-explains the rules.

“I’ll throw the ball. You have to catch it. If you drop it, you’re D. If you drop it again, you’re D-O. If you keep dropping it, you’ll be D-O-N-K-E-Y and once you reach Y you have to go sit down. The last person left is the winner. No cheating. No pushing. Are you ready?”

All the children scream “Yes!”

We form a loose ring around him, and the game begins.

“You want?” Appa says, and holds out the ball to the nearest child. The child nods, and grins, and begins to giggle. The giggle is infectious, and within seconds the entire room is filled with excited giggling.

Appa is unperturbed. He turns in a slow circle, offering the ball to everyone in turn. And then he says, “I won’t give it to you.” He hides the ball behind his back, and smiles mischievously. Then his expression changes to one of concern. “You want? Your really want?” he says, as he holds the ball out to the child in front of him, and then, without warning, he spins on his heel and tosses it to the child directly behind him saying “Here, take.”

Almost always, the startled child shrieks and drops the ball, and the entire room erupts in chants of “D! D!”

Someone tosses the ball back to Appa. “Thank you. Take it back” he says, and tosses it, not to the returner, but the child next to her. Another shriek, another chant of “D! D!”

The game continues, and Appa never pauses, his patter impeccable and infuriatingly distracting. He points left and throws right. He closes his eyes and pretends to meditate before tossing it over his shoulder without warning. He fake-throws, and like confused Labradors, we fall over each other trying to catch the imaginary ball.

Furious kids argue over whether they are ‘DONK’ or ‘DONKE’ and Appa is sometimes strict, sometimes lenient, and sometimes ends the argument by tossing the ball at the quarrelling child.

As more children are knocked out of the game, it becomes more interesting. It’s not hard to catch a big, soft ball thrown gently from a distance of four feet, even if you are a clumsy child, like me. But Appa makes distraction an extreme sport.

Sometimes, to keep things interesting, he focuses on a single child.

He gently tosses the ball, engaging the child in conversation. “What did you have for lunch today?”

“Curd rice.” The ball is tossed back to Appa.

“Oh. Nice. I like curd rice. You like curd rice?” The child catches the ball.

“Yes.” Back to Appa.

“What are your grandfather’s initials?”


The child goes blank, desperately trying to remember. Appa tosses the ball and the distracted child drops it. The room erupts again.

Appa picks up the ball and turns to the survivors with a smile.

There are times when the birthday child wins. Most often though, it is Rahul, who is younger than most of us but plays for the Under-12 District cricket team.

Eventually, it doesn’t matter who wins. It matters that you came, and you played and you watched Appa perform.

The winner gets a bar of chocolate. All of us get the show.

Sometimes we also play Simon-says, or musical chairs, or passing-the-parcel or some verbal gymnastic version of donkey, but they are all second-class affairs. Birthday means donkey.

Then one year, my eldest sister decides that she will invite her school friends instead of our colony friends for her birthday. We cannot play donkey with them. It is too childish, too embarrassing.

I think she is being stupid. I am furious. And so are all the colony children. That year is the end of our childhood, even though the other three ask for donkey for a few years afterward.

When I am in 8th standard, I invite my new school-friends home for my birthday. It is not a tea party. We have dinner. There are cutlets on the menu. We fill our plates with Amma’s delicious food and sit in my room, my room which has just been converted from play-room into my bedroom, and we talk and listen to Eminem and I do not take the softball, now with cotton bursting from its frayed seams from years of scrabbling hands, I do not take the ball to Appa.

It is a miserable birthday.  Because birthday means donkey.

I move out when I am 20, and sometimes I am working on my birthday, sometimes drinking, sometimes traveling. There are surprise parties. There are nice gifts. There is contemplation of the year gone by. I enjoy my birthdays, mostly.

I’m turning 30 this year, Appa is retiring in December, and my sisters have children of their own, and the four of us are grown up happy and successful but I’m willing to bet that all of us would give anything to be children again, and play D-O-N-K-E-Y one last time.

Francis Thomas is a copywriter with an unacceptable sense of humour. He falls in love with cities and collects interesting people. He's probably eating something right now.

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