A sticky situation involving cake, foreign gods and the ethics of hospitality is just another day in the life of Alan and Megan Barker, BMS World Mission workers in Nepal. They write:
Our young friend, Rabin, had his 13th birthday the other day and we were invited. The day before the big event Megan had showed his mum how to make a birthday cake – birthdays and cakes are not usually a big thing here.
We arrived at his house with said cake and were greeted enthusiastically by the birthday boy who whisked it out of Megan’s hands. He placed it in the middle of the floor of the room that doubles as a sitting room and bedroom and we were ushered to the bed that was doubling as a seat. Rabin sat cross-legged on the floor next to the cake and a tray containing some flowers (marigolds), incense sticks, a small oil lamp and some red paste on a plate. Friends and relatives began to crowd into the dimly lit, tiny room. The electricity was out; light coming from a single battery-powered lamp.
Next to come into the room was Rabin’s uncle, the oldest male in the family, who lit the small wick in the lamp on the tray and the incense sticks. He then gave Rabin ‘tikka’, a lump of the red paste in the middle of his forehead, a sign of blessing in the name of the god of Rabin’s birthday, Ganesh.
As the pungent, flowery aroma of the incense filled the room, other relatives came in, gave Rabin tikka, fed him a mouthful of cake and then allowed him to feed them a mouthful of cake. Some gave him a small gift of money, others gave a wrapped present.
And then the awkward moment: Rabin’s father invited us to give tikka. A hasty glance in the gloom and then a moment’s hesitation but the offer to pray for Rabin according to our ‘culture’ seemed to be an acceptable solution, satisfying our ‘problem’ with offering a blessing from Ganesh, (hopefully!) without offending them and their wish that we participate in the ceremony. We still got some birthday cake anyway!
Next it was dinner time. We were invited to join Rabin and his dad on the floor, which meant a rearrangement of the other people milling about but we found a space and as gracefully as possible, eased ourselves down. A plate of dhal bhat (rice, lentils, curry) was placed in front of us and Rabin and his father, chatting away, watched us eat. Before we could finish though, I had another awkward moment: leg falling asleep! But no doubt caused by being in such a cramped space with nowhere to stretch it out without having to scatter dinner plates, birthday cake, puja tray and people.
Not quite what we were expecting at a 13 year-old’s birthday party, but another cultural learning experience!