Sunday, November 20, 2005

The birthday party

I just dropped my daughter off at a birthday party. Along the way, obeying my wife’s clear instructions, I picked up a ‘birthday present ‘ from the gift shop, had it wrapped in silver paper, and entrusted it to my daughter to hand over to the birthday girl. It was one of those cute little jewel boxes with musical chimes and cost me Rs, 250/ plus another Rs. 10/- for the special silver wrapper. The entire transaction was completed in 5 minutes.

Now, I am aware that a jewel box, however musical it is and however silvery the paper it is wrapped in, is an entirely useless thing for a ten-year-old to possess, but I suffered no pangs of guilt at having palmed off such a stupid gift on the unsuspecting kid. I have taken my kids to enough birthday parties to know that the recipient of the gift is not unduly concerned about what gift he or she receives. What matters is the ritual of getting a gift and the thrill of unwrapping it. To prove my theory, I intend to plant an empty box wrapped in silver paper as a birthday present, one of these days .I am certain that nobody will notice the difference. .

The parents of the birthday girl had invited 25 other kids to the party and would end up spending Rs. 5000/- on the pizzas, the birthday cake, the festoons and balloons and the return-gifts. If each of the invited kids brought a gift worth Rs. 200 (not everyone is as generous as I am), the total value of the gifts received would be Rs. 5000/-. So, as far as the parents are concerned, it would all square up, right? Wrong. The parents will be stuck with 25 different gifts of questionable or zero value – unless they can monetise the momentary thrill experienced by their kid while unwrapping the parcels – and would be down by Rs. 5000/-, being the expenditure on the cheesy pizzas, the balloons that were pumped with air only to be exploded the next second, and the colas that were consumed and burped away adding to the greenhouse effect.

Remember that each of these 26 kids gets invited to 25 birthday parties in a year and the parents of each of the kids need to spend Rs. 200/- on buying gifts for each of the parties. Simple back-of-the-envelope calculations will show that, to purchase birthday gifts in a year, the parents of all the 25 kids will spend a total of Rs. 1,25,000/-. Another Rs. 1,25,000/- will be spent on the pizzas, the colas and the balloons. A total of Rs. 2,50,000/- will thus be blown-up on “useless’ stuff.

Extrapolating this on a national scale, even if there are just one lakh and one kids in India involved in this birthday circuit, we are talking about an annual national turnover of Rs. 100 crores on jewel boxes with musical chimes (and similar items), junk food and gas-filled colas. This accounts for just one expenditure head- the birthday party. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other influences and marketing campaigns that exercise an irresistible pull on the kids and draw the parents into their fold. These must surely involve a few thousand crore rupees.

As adults, we are caught in myriad rituals that are scaled-up versions of the birthday binge. We produce goods and services which serve no real purpose except that of ego gratification and use the money so earned to buy an assortment of ‘useless” goods and services, in a self-perpetuating cycle involving tens of thousands of crores of rupees.

Mine may be an extremely cynical, even childish viewpoint and most sociologists and economists will passionately defend the above business model.

The sociologist will argue that rituals such as birthday parties, weddings, exchange of gifts during festivals serve the purpose of reinforcing the bond between people. The gesture is what matters; the ritual is secondary, but provides the platform for extending the gesture.

Economists will put forward the argument that consumerism is the quintessence of capitalism, that it will kick in a virtuous spiral of more production and more buying, that this churn in the economy alone can create the critical mass required to progress from the Gandhian framework of frugal living to a higher Maslovian plane, that the threshold or yardstick for defining basic needs will constantly change (today’s luxury = tomorrow’s basic need), that increased consumption leads to capacity build-up and more employment potential, that the ripple effect will result in more scientific and medical breakthroughs, increased life spans and superior quality of life, that a growth in GDP even if through production and consumption of useless goods and services is most desirable. So, the earlier we initiate the kids into the path of consumerism, the better it is for the national economy. Have more birthday parties and splurge on.

As a layman not conversant with such high-fundas and as one belonging to a generation that did not celebrate birthday parties- certainly not on the grand scale that we witness today- and was no worse for it, I am not too sure. What if we cut back on the consumption of useless goods? What if we scale down now? What if we told our kids that there would be no more birthday parties?


rauf said...

I read the first couple of paragraphs and skipped the rest
Sir I am afraid your logic is very sick

Is your life useful sir ? Is my life useful ? The whole idea of creating this universe is so absurd. We like to read stories of happy ending because we are aware of eternal tragedy looming on our heads. For what ever reason we are here lets make somebody happy
lets make the best of it.

Please make your daughter happy by celeberating her birthday as she pleases and receive all the useless gifts ans please waste some money for her, I wish her all the joy in the world

Anonymous said...

My best friend and I were sitting in a coffee shop, musing over the day's events, and just relaxing after a long day. I just spoke up, breaking the quietitude, " i'm not planning to have children." That gave him a jolt, and he looked at me in disbelief. I can imagine that, coming from a girl ( i'm a Cancerian too, supposedly the sign for parenthood ), it must have been quite a shock, cuz here, in India, it's more of an unwritten rule for a girl to be married, and beget kids, no questions asked. And i went on and explained WHY i didn't want to have kids. He heard me out, patiently ( unusual for him ) and he gives me this cynical smile and says, " what do you know about the joys of seeing a smile on your toddler's face, after a tired day at work? that's enough to erase all the worry lines from your face" and i didn't know how to retaliate to that, seeing the ok-enough-of-this-rubbish look on his face ( he is the father of a two-year old tyke ) , and i just settled back in my bean bag, consoling myself, that since i'm not going to have any kids, i am not missing anything.

But i still remember his words. Indian parents are children-oriented. They go out of their way to make sure their child is happy and satisfied. So, even if there are crores of rupees being spent on "jewel boxes-like mundane gifts" , it still is an exhilarating feeling to see the bunny teeth stick out between your child's lips, then the other two, then the rest of the 20 teeth, as his/her mouth widens in a grin. And then, after they have grown up, sensible enough to understand the ground realities, to listen to them proudly announce to their peers, " oh, my daddy is the best!!"

To put it across the Mastercard way,

Fuel for the drive - 200 Rs
Musical Jewel box - 250 Rs
Silver gift wrappin - 10 Rs

The look on the kids' faces..

Priceless !!



Ashish Gupta said...

Your calculations are missing a *very* important point: recycling of gifts. Unless you are really-really rich (then you wouldn't be doing this number crunching anyway), most people pass gift from one friend to another and so on. That will cut down size of indsutry byabout 25-30%.

Shruthi said...

Good post! And great calculations :)))

I tend to agree with AshishG... the recycling phenomenon totally exists. I know a lady who gave away a casserole which had a tiny blemish at the bottom for someone's housewarming, and her daughter got it back 2 years later at her wedding - the same casserole with the distinctive blemish!

Doc said...

Hey PU...Ultra-ist Ultra,
Nice to see you on a roll bud:) And how is life treating you? Well on my side a lot of things have changed and a change for the good:) Check out my blogsite to tune in to the latest from me and stay tuned dont go away(this should be told a la the compere goddesses on Tamil satellite channels;)))
The gift thingy is one of those 'phenomena' that gets my goat. I have made it a point to insert my hands into trouser pockets and visit any special occasion and return in the same mode only to remove my hands while having a sumptious dinner or lunch there;)))) The question of giving a gift doesnt arise at all:)))))
Anyways what am I doing on a busy Monday morning on your blog? ;))))) Bye and laters!
(I dont know if that thing is 'i' or 'j'...this word verification stuff is bothering my poor eyesight;)))))

Anonymous said...

Which is exactly why i don't believe in bday gifts/cards.

"...And then, after they have grown up, sensible enough to understand the ground realities, to listen to them proudly announce to their peers, " oh, my daddy is the best!!" "

o ya, and then they, in turn, will buy those mundane gifts for their kids... endless cycle.

L said...

I guess recycling kills the whole concept...!! I tend to ethically believe that a gift accepted is never parted with...!!

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