I’ve been 21 since I was 21. Yes, that is true. At that age I was having my first taste of success, my first real brush with an independent life-style, my unfettered dives into the world of creativity, and a realisation that there was more to girls than they being simply another word in the dictionary!

Before I touched 21, I was just growing older… and the years past didn’t seem to matter so much as the many beyond-my-reach moments to look forward to. At 21 I knew the difference between a barber-trimmed beard and an old spiced ah-so-smooth look… though it never came without the Ooo-ah-ouch days. I was a GC at the Indian Military Academy then, and the Sundays in Paltan Bazaar  or walking aimlessly from the Clock Tower to The Yeti wearing the academy tie was never without getting plenty of sideward glances from the doon beauties… and our chest-out, shoulders-back, chin-up stances gave an entirely new meaning to success. Success was actually limited to all this vain huffing and puffing but most of us were happy with that… and it was during such a time that I took the bizarre path to writing poetry. This was the only way I knew then of keeping wonderful moments alive forever. This also made me immensely popular with my friends there.

It was then that I came across this quote by Pablo Picasso: “It takes a long time to grow young.” I mentioned this to my friends.

“Ha” they chorused, and then one of them commented, “Life is a forward march, an advance into unknown territory…”

“…so go forth and seek!” said I.

“Yes. But keep your eyes sharp and ears to the ground…” added a friend.

“And don’t forget to expect ambushes,” said another.

Strange, I thought, moving ahead has a fair share of tense moments and life does imitate tactical moves so much. Then and there I made a resolve to remain young forever and never get cowed down or bullied by mere time. How much time does it actually take to make a resolution? A few minutes, if you need to think really hard before blurting out a mere 10 odd words.

So it doesn’t take long to grow young, Pablo.

I’d be more likely to be with Richard Bach when he exhorts readers to “fly free and happy beyond birthdays and across forever,… in the midst of the one celebration that never can end.” I’ve always likened living moments to one big celebration… though not one where DJs mix remixes to create ear-drum hallucinations or where netas and babus argue interminably to gloat on their point of view! My sort of celebration is silent, inwardly mobile, and prone to experiencing energetic sparks that are there for everyone who chooses to open and go within the moth-eaten cover of a book!

Remaining young isn’t the same as having a pathological urge to dwell on the past. What I mean is what Lucy Marcom meant when she said that “whatever with the past has gone, the best is always yet to come.” Got it?

Birthdays help me remain young

Even in those no-internet-no-facebook days, I always looked forward to my birthday. It feels so nice to be smiled at by everyone in school. You’re different that day. You feel like that new leaf that has just opened itself… which is also like all those other dusty leaves after a shower!

Now with social networking around, this day has gone far beyond just a few phone-calls and emails. Friends in the virtual world have given a new meaning to a birthday. Imagine the thrill to find people from all corners of the world dropping in on your page to wish you on your birthday. They’ve indeed made the world one large family… of people from countries that you dream of, jobs that you often think about, faces and features that go beyond those that you meet and see in the real world… it is all a surreal experience that is heady enough to make you nod your head and say: “…and if this isn’t reason enough to feel young, then what is?” All it takes is to remain open to accepting people as friends even though you may not know them or ever meet them in the real world. Expand your world and get younger, so to say.

So it doesn’t take long to grow young, Pablo.

The origin

Does it matter where and how this institution of birthdays originated from? For all I care it could have been some rough cave artist in some year BC who counted moon nights to decide on slaying a stinky skunk on the same day every year! If that made him happy and made him feel young, so be it. Others must then have decided that celebrating annual skunk slaying days was too quirky and, therefore, they may have decided on the next stinky option, that is, of celebrating the maximum stink day of their Chief! Sounds probable, right? This explains why we are all so obsessed with celebrating the birthdays of our politicians. It is all a custom from the past.

But seriously, the internet threw open some rather interesting answers. I was astonished to discover that birthdays emerged from the ancient pagan practice of astrology! “Thousands of years ago, when men looked up into the night sky and charted the stars, they invented calendars and calculated the birth dates, to the very hour, of kings, rulers and their successors. These ancient pagan astrologers meticulously examined horoscopes and birthday omens because they believed that the fate of the rich and powerful might affect an entire society.” So I was actually right when I thought birthday celebrations had a political angle to them!

You know what – let me offer yet another theory. From ancient times it is the big-wigs, rulers, and the mighty who were privileged to have their birthdays celebrated.

“Ah! That’s the reason these big-wigs always remain so young and fresh!” This was obviously the thought of a commoner. (The ad agencies still exploit this funda without realising that I will convert it into a theory in 2011)

Once this thought had gained enough momentum, there must’ve been a big bang (No, definitely not the big bang that produced some slimy uni-celled creatures and neither the big bangs that are helping India overtake China’s population!) or a revolution and commoners must’ve won the right to celebrate birthdays. And they must have got together and sung: “Now we shall remain young forever!” This was the best alchemy that society ever produced: Celebrate birthdays to remain young! Long live, Paulo Coelho for making alchemy sound so easy!

So it doesn’t take long to grow young, Pablo.

What gives life to your years?

Now we all know how birthdays help you remain young. However, the years still trudge along slowly and make sure that wrinkles and greyness attend office when they must. Obviously, it isn’t the years in life that mean much; it is the life to your years that makes all the difference.

So what is that secret formula that will give life to your years? It is simple, really. And I’m surprised you haven’t guessed it already. But then, had you guessed, you wouldn’t be applauding as you read this article.

This secret formula has a single line: “When you celebrate the birthdays of all you know, you help them remain young; and they return the favour!” Now this isn’t the same as scratching each other’s back but takes more effort… you see, how many backs can you scratch in real life? Not many. Real life presents a lot of limitations in numbers, therefore, go ahead and build your friend lists on all the social networks that you can think of… I was counting the birthday wishes that I have received today (only half my birth-day is over yet) and it has crossed a couple of centuries! These 200 wishes are what help me keep young! And it has taken me just a few months to build this friend-list.

So it doesn’t take long to grow young, Pablo.

I’m sure you can do much more than this number. This formula that I am talking about… is a vast improvement on what Ogden Nash said: “Marriage is the alliance of two people, one of whom never remembers birthdays and the other never forgets them.” So remember that remembering to wish all your friends on their birthday will never make you look like a fool, it will simply add more life to your years!!

Does forgetting someone’s birthday matter?

No, it doesn’t.

You can call up this someone or send him a message or email or write on the wall that though you were not able to wish on that day, you had never allowed his thought to get erased completely. Thus you can wake up any day, any time and help your friend remain young! Simple. How long will this take?

So, obviously, it doesn’t take long to grow young, Pablo.

What else do you so on birthdays

I learnt from the net that in ancient Egypt, the pharaohs announced businesses holidays on their birthdays and threw lavish feasts even for servants.

In ancient Greece, wealthy males formed exclusive birthday clubs of those having their birthday fall on the same date. Besides monthly bashes they also willed money to help pay for future parties.

In Persia, noblemen observed their birthdays by barbecuing the animal of the day (it could’ve been an ox, a camel or even a donkey) and serving them along with hundreds of small cakes.

In ancient Rome, the emperor had huge parties organised on his birthday. These parties included parades, circuses, and even gladiatorial combat. The celebration of days was so important to the average Roman citizen that the Roman calendar designated a majority of days for some form of celebration… including many birthdays of gods and famous men.

These customs aren’t really dead and gone. They’re all still there in some form or the other. These customs allowed the spirit of youthfulness to remain live and kicking… history tells us that civilizations wither away when societies walk away from the zest of a celebratory mood to adopt an attitude that is sombre and moody and restless. The recession that we all experienced some time back was akin to a sombre faced economy… all that it actually needed was the celebratory stance of a nation’s executive. They did this by pumping in money to keep the celebration of economy buoyant! Tell me if they didn’t. The world is a younger place since then.

So it doesn’t take long to grow young, Pablo.

However, it is vital to also remember that “all the world is birthday cake, so take a piece, but not too much.” (George Harrison)

Vasudev Kutumbakam

I have already said that the world is one family. Let the celebratory mood not be limited by mere language. We are living in techno-savvy times and you can actually go on and wish your friend living in any part of the world in his own language. All you need to do is to go to http://translate.google.com and with its help get your message in the right language.

Here are a few examples:

English: Many happy returns of the day! :- )

French: Bonne fête de la journée! :- )

German: Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag des Tages! :- )

Italian: Tanti auguri del giorno! :- )

Spanish: Muchas felicidades del día! :- )

Latin: Multi beatam reditus diem! :- )

Welsh: Blwydd hapus Mae llawer o’r diwrnod! :- )

Finnish: Paljon onnea päivän! :- )

Irish: Tuairisceáin sásta go leor ar an lá! :- )

Danish: Mange glade afkast af dagen! :- )

One reason why I decided to include these translations is not to give you some sloppy translation examples… it was to prove that whatever be the language of the spoken word, the smiley remains the same! This smiley is something that everyone everywhere understands well. And it doesn’t take very long to do all this.

So it doesn’t take long to grow young, Pablo.

Last word

I was calculating the male:female ratio in the 200 odd messages that I have received on this birthday and I must say that barely one-fifth were males! So the huffing and puffing of a 21 year old olive-green clad cadet is still live and kicking!

This DNA of youthfulness is what I wanted to share with you all this birthday… and the fact that it doesn’t take long to grow young!


Arvind Passey
09 May 2011


Featured image credit: Insigma