A picture of the author's mother
Smarani Komanduri/MiC.

On April 24, my Amma turned another year older. This year was her third birthday during the pandemic, and thanks to vaccines and other precautionary measures, she was finally able to celebrate with her friends again. 

Over the years, I’ve been told by my Amma what she and her friends do for each other’s milestone birthdays. However, I have never actually seen what unfolds at one of these “aunty birthday parties,” as I like to call them, since the rest of my family and I typically wait at home while my Amma is away, pondering what to have for dinner. Instead, I just gather information from the hundreds of pictures and videos my Amma shows me the next day.

I’ve always wondered what happens at one of these parties. I know everyone always has a splendid time, but there’s always so much coordination involved in executing said parties that I honestly could not even imagine.

However, here’s what I do know: 

  1. They all wear matching saris.

Matching saris are crucial for the photo ops. The birthday girl will wear a color no one else wears, carefully chosen by the friend group. They factor in things like what the birthday girl’s favorite color is, what color sari she doesn’t own yet and what she looks best in. For example, my Amma wore a dark pink sari this year. Two of her friends wore orange, another two wore lavender, another two wore yellow, but she was the only one wearing dark pink. All the saris had a white floral design that glistened and shimmered in the light. The sleeves of their blouses had matching embellishments while the rest of the blouse was plain, creating a contrast that made the details of the sari even more striking. The group orders the saris and delivers them to each other slyly, keeping the birthday girl in the dark about what the outfit looks like until the night before, or morning of, the party.

  1. Decorations are a must. 

Again, for the photo ops, decorations are key. Typically, these decorations include balloons, streamers or anything that fits the “theme” of the party. For my Amma’s party this year, the theme was “music,” since one of her favorite hobbies is singing, so the walls were adorned with streamers and balloons shaped like musical notes. In the corners of the room, they had little instruments and tanpuras set up, along with more balloons that said “50” on them. (Even though my Amma didn’t turn 50 this year, this was considered a “make-up” party since she couldn’t celebrate with her friends on her actual 50th birthday.) My Amma was even given a flower crown made of real, dark pink and white flowers, deliberately chosen to perfectly match her sari.

  1. The birthday girl is blindfolded and taken to a “secret location.”

The birthday girl doesn’t actually know where her party is, just when it is. She’s expected to be ready at a certain time, when someone from the group will come by to pick her up and blindfold her. This is to ensure the birthday girl can’t guess where the party is until they are actually at the location. When my Amma’s friends came to pick her up, I peered through the window to watch them put the blindfold on her, snapping photos as secretively as possible. I could hear their laughter from the driveway as they tried to put the blindfold on my Amma without ruining her hair and makeup. My Amma even guessed the location of the party correctly before she was picked up, but it was still a fun experience for her — and just as fun for me as I watched it all unfold.

  1. There’s always a video montage. 

During these “aunty birthday parties,” there’s always a time when the birthday girl gets to watch a birthday video montage made by all of her friends and family and projected in whatever room they’re sitting in. I knew about the birthday video since I was recruited to send in pictures of my Amma from over the years. My Amma was overcome with joy when she found out that not only was I in the know, but so was her family in India. She was even able to watch videos from her father and two sisters in India wishing her a happy birthday. After seeing my Amma dress up countless times to record birthday wishes for her friends, I was so excited for her to finally receive a video of her own.

At first, this all might seem extremely extra. Watching my Amma plan for her friends’ birthdays, coordinating with everyone, making room in her closet for yet another sari — to me, it always felt like so much effort for so little payoff. But it wasn’t until I saw my Amma have her own party thrown for her that I finally realized how much fun these ladies have with each other. My Amma could not stop smiling the entire day following her party; she scrolled endlessly through her camera roll, both to show the rest of our family pictures from that night and to relive it for herself.

So while all of this does seem incredibly frivolous, it has shown me the power of friendship, and the bond these women share with each other. Their kindness and gratitude are extended not only toward my Amma, but to me, too. These aunties have given me rides to and from school growing up and welcomed me into their homes; one of them is literally my vocal guru. Amma was so thrilled just to be able to spend time with her friends — especially at a party themed around one of her favorite hobbies — who consistently remind her of how loved she is in this community.

My Amma moved around a lot before finally settling in our current hometown, making it hard for her to truly find a sense of belonging. But now, when the idea of moving again comes up, she immediately shuts it down.

“I have friends here!” she always says. 

If I had a group of friends like hers, I’d never want to leave either. She has finally found a community here. Day in and day out, I get to witness this powerful group of women celebrate each other. But most importantly, I get to see my Amma grin ear to ear as she scrolls through her camera roll to reminisce on the friendships she’s made.

MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be reached at smaranik@umich.edu.