“How old are you?” I asked the guest, while we were seated across from each other on the train heading into town.
I was back home from college after freshman year and, as was customary in our household, assigned to escort our summer guests to the local tourist hotspots. The guest whose age I had just enquired, was my maternal grandfather’s youngest brother. He was on his way to India, from Canada, and had stopped over in London and was our last guest that summer.
My objective for the direct question was simply to assess whether he qualified for the discounted Senior Adult ticket at the museum to which we were headed. Surprised at my question, he lifted his head up from the newspaper he had been poring over, glanced across my eyes and turned towards the window.
“I don’t know” he said, looking at the North London scenery passing by.
“Well, when were you born?” I persisted.
Turning back towards me, he responded, “I was born sometime during autumn, when our milk-bearing buffalo had run away from our house in the village.” Seeing the perplexed look on my face, he surrendered a lingering smile and confessed, “…at least that is what I gleaned from my late mother when I asked her about my birthday”.
“Surely, you must have a birthday listed in your passport?”
“Yes, I do. That date is simply the day I first reported to school, the first day of the school year. Everyone from my village has the same birthday!”
Like the guest that day, I too have an ambivalent relationship with my birthday, mainly because I actually have two: One real and the other official.
My real birthday is the day I was born, a date known to close family members, while my official birthday is the one listed on all my formal documents, as well as on the formal documents of my siblings. As a result, a “Happy Birthday!” wish, either by colleagues at work or by Facebook, elicits the feeling that an identical twin has when she has been mistaken for her former womb-mate.
“Who, me? Thanks.” Ha! The joke’s on you, buddy.
The incongruence between my birthdays, real and official, came about during a hot summer day in the Karachi passport office. My maternal grandfather or Nanna, who had been assigned the duty of applying for our passports by my mother, balked at the size of the disorderly crowd at the passport office. After asking my sisters and I to wait on a bench under a shady tree near the building, he jumped into the crowd to retrieve the necessary forms that needed to be filled.
Realizing that he would have to traverse the crowd again if he went out to enquire our birthdays, he gave us the same birthday on the forms, albeit with different years. Our birth-years were assigned based on the relative age differences between us.
Since then, our common birthdays have made for some interesting family travel. Immigration officials often either marvel or snicker at our parents’ regularity when our passports are presented together.
As above, shared birthdays can be just instances of happenstance. But, what does it mean to truly share a birthday with someone?
I suppose, in a cosmic sense, a birthday means the day one’s soul is beamed down into the molecular superstructure of one’s newborn body on Spaceship Earth. Sharing a birthday, then, is the sharing of a particular location in our planetary orbit, setting the planet’s relation to the Sun and the stars.
When this happens within a family for non-twins, people often incredulously exclaim, “What are the odds?!”
Well, actually, they are 1/365, unless you are born on February 29th, in which case they are 1/1461. Not astronomical at all!
So, as I near the completion of my 51st orbit around the Sun while my youngest finishes his 7th, this astronaut would like to tell him, “We are approaching our special point of celestial alignment; Happy Birthday, Ibrahim!”
by Farrukh Ahmad, 6th October 2018.