Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on June 14, 2019 Published on June 14, 2019

“Have you wished our eldest for her birthday?” my sister, the one who lives in Hartford, asks. “Not yet!” I reply, with a guilty start. ’Tis the midnight hour on our side of the planet and I had planned to call in the morning. But the eldest lives in India, where the birthday is well underway. So I call her on WhatsApp. She’s in high spirits. “It’s wonderful being 16!” she chortles. “But I’m younger than you,” I whine in dismay. “If you’re 16, that makes me...”

She dismisses my protests with the airy disdain of the all-knowing oldest sibling. “Always the tedious literalist!” she says. “Time is an illusion, dahling! Age is a delusion. My plan for the day is to go hang-gliding in the morning, sip champagne at lunch, swim with pink dolphins in the evening. And take in an opera or two at night!” She’s already received so many bouquets that her dog, a high-strung beagle, has retired to his oxygen tent, wheezing and complaining. “He gets exhausted, poor little fellow, from barking at the delivery-boys!” she says. “He finds their ankles quite delicious, but they refuse to let him chew on them. The wretches.”

She’s been up early because of the number of friends and relatives who have called from near and far. “The first to call was the oldest of our cousins,” she says, “from Kerala. It’s really very sweet of her to remember. She’s over 80 and keeps track of all of the rest of us.” My two sisters and I have 33 first cousins. Some have passed away, but I always think of all of us in the present tense, a great cluster of similar beings, zippered together by shared genes and happy picnics and funny stories.

The next morning, when my sister and I are awake on our side of the planet, the eldest is pulling down the shutters on her exciting day. She sends us an email with the highlights — no actual skydiving or dolphins — but lemon-and-mint sorbet at lunch, chocolate truffle cake at tea and calls from elderly aunts who sang Happy Birthday on the phone. Flowers from the son-in-law in Sri Lanka. The laburnum tree bursts into bloom. The beagle refrains from biting anyone. The gifts include orchids, books and clothes, the best of which, says the sister, “is an excellent nightie.” Why? “I can’t explain,” she says, mysteriously. “It. Just. Is.”

Bins, who has been on the periphery of these events, cannot hold back a comment. “Whoa,” he marvels, sarcastically, “Your family puts on a big-big show, huh? All for an anniversary! Of a human birth!” His family is too otherworldly to bother with such mundane events, he says. “Every day is a celebration. Every pulse beat is a gift.” I roll my eyes. “Okay, okay,” I say, “but whose turn is it to make tea?” “Yours,” he informs me. Why? “Because,” he says, echoing my sister, “It. Just. Is.”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on June 14, 2019
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