By Kahini Iyer Jan. 22, 2019
In India, poverty isn’t just a state of mind, and paisa-vasooli is a way of life. Yet, people buy an extra birthday cake, just to smash it gleefully in some unfortunate soul’s face. What gives?
Like most Indian children, I grew up listening to my grandmother’s highly improbable stories about food. Some – like when she’d get us to eat eggplant by claiming it was starfish – were her own creations. But some were generic nuggets of wisdom passed down by Indian grandmothers at large, like for every grain of rice I left on the plate, my karma would be to pick them up with my eyelids.
The moral of this gruesome old wives’ tale is evident: Wasting food is a grave sin. Especially if you live in India where malnutrition is real, poverty isn’t just a state of mind, and paisa-vasooli is a way of life. And yet, this is also a country where people buy an extra birthday cake, just to smash it gleefully in some unfortunate soul’s face. What gives?
Remember when we used to feed each other civilised mouthfuls of cake? Now, we consider any celebration incomplete until we get the birthday boy in a headlock and grind fistfuls of Black Forest into his nose. We’re deaf to protests about new outfits and freshly washed hair, and any poor sod who prefers to go through his special day without a cream facial is treated like a joyless pariah. Even at work, fellow colleagues will vent months of pent-up angst on birthdays, throwing chunks of cake with wild abandon, ensuring that everything reeks of buttercream for the rest of the week – including the miserable peon who has to clean up afterwards. Because nothing screams “Indian celebration” than a completely avoidable leftover mess.
Despite the obvious challenges of hygiene, food wastage, and plain lack of consideration, cake-smashing is still so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to escape it. Are we so used to haldi-kunku that we compulsively smear icing on faces? Or is it the notorious Indian obsession with sweets that inspires us to embrace cake-smashing as a quicker route to diabetes?
But when that same rebellion becomes a socially mandated, chocolate-covered horror show, how is it any different from the thousand other rituals that you suffer through just for other people?
Of course, the Indian popularity with the cake smash also stems from the fact that the “trend” of cake-smashing has, of late, become a thing in the US and the UK – our country’s standards of coolness. Like chai lattes and hot yoga, the West has managed to put its own spin on the cake-smash, and it’s as Instagrammable as you would think. In 2017, the BBC published a video called “Cake smash: The new way to celebrate your baby’s first birthday”. Apparently, after a few too many toddlers couldn’t keep still for their requisite birthday photoshoots, someone decided that they might as well be covered in cake from the get-go, and everyone else agreed that it was a good idea. And according to a Washington Post report, Americans celebrate their 30th birthdays by clinging to the careless joys of childhood, which means dressing up like a fairy princess and lathering yourself in cake.
Back in India, the longstanding appeal of the cake-smash is exactly this: It’s an opportunity to rebel against everything we’ve been taught as kids. But when that same rebellion becomes a socially mandated, chocolate-covered horror show, how is it any different from the thousand other rituals that you suffer through just for other people? Because, for reasons best known to their own delinquent minds, certain cake-smashers find it particularly hilarious to prey upon those who want no part in their nonsense.
What the cake-smash crowd doesn’t realise is, like running through the monsoon muck, the whole fun of a messy, sticky cake smash is when you choose it yourself. It’s a point where you decide to say “fuck it” – not a moment that you dread all day and that forces you to carry a spare shirt, hand sanitiser, and insect repellent in preparation.
So in 2019, can we agree to get in touch with our inner child by playing Super Mario and taking naps, instead of assaulting our loved ones with fondant? Can we save our repressed rage for Holi and our family disputes for weddings, as God intended? And for those ardent cake-smashers who refuse to take no for an answer, maybe you should form a fight club where you can terrorise each other, and leave innocent birthday boys and girls in peace.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.