The invitation was a cupcake inside a floral china teacup with a little golden spoon. The memento for guests to take home was a little jewellery box. The décor included little chandeliers and vintage Victorian-themed accessories. The affair had all the trappings of a major celebration except this wasn’t a wedding or coming-of-age party. This was a little girl’s birthday party in Karachi.
The birthday party circuit in Pakistan has become an insane merry-go-round of extravagance and one-upmanship. A simple party with sandwiches, a few balloons, cake and a bouncing castle squeezed into a car porch is no longer enough. Event planners, themed décor, designer cakes and expensive catering have become the norm. The tales of excess are startling.
In Lahore, for example, in some circles the cake simply must be from La Reve. The designer bakery’s creations are exquisite but can easily cost as much as Rs100,000. Catering by posh eatery Cosa Nostra is de rigueur and top notch event planners have been known to stipulate a minimum budget of Rs1 million. One mother sent out expensive toys from The Early Learning Centre as a party invitation.
Another put her child’s picture on a billboard at the party. Karachi is not far behind. There was a Ferrari party recently that used a Cars theme where the décor alone apparently cost Rs200,000. Another parent invited the actor who plays Mr Bean in the HBL ads to his daughter’s Mr Bean themed party. The invite for this party was a miniature stuffed toy in a tin while the goody bag was a leather box. A Mr Bean lookalike may have seemed a coup of sorts but it can’t top the Bollywood themed party for a 10-year old in Lahore a few years ago. Katrina Kaif performed live at the party while a huge screen displayed personal messages recorded by various Bollywood stars including Kareena Kapoor.
Very few parents go to the sorts of lengths that those parents did but parties these days resemble funfairs. Candy floss, popcorn machines, a magic show and jumping castles are all seen as absolute necessities. Common add-ons include trampolines, coin-operated rides and tables overflowing with candy. Girls’ birthdays often include hair and nail stations so guests can try out beaded dreadlocks or nail art. There’s invariably an activity station where bored women sit ready to help children stick glitter and beads all over photo frames or name plaques. Some parents even add pony rides or a pottery-wala who helps the children make pots.
Grandiose children’s birthday parties are a global trend. Suri Cruise’s second birthday featured 1,000 live butterflies, while a birthday party in Delhi made waves with iPod shuffles in the goody bag. On a less pretentious level, there is an entire global industry based on themed cake pops, decorations and what not. Many mothers in Pakistan are in favour of creative, well-planned birthday parties.
“There is no other entertainment for our children. We have too few places for children to play. They can’t cycle in their neighborhood, there are very few cinemas and bowling alleys while security issues mean that every visit to the park is an occasion,” says a mom. “We don’t have Little League sports, indoor playgrounds or skating rinks and many other forms of entertainment that children abroad take for granted. Birthday parties provide an opportunity for entertainment that is lacking over here.”
Similarly a lot of parents have no issues with extravagant parties. “There is nothing wrong with appreciating the finer things in life. We give a lot to charity too so what’s wrong with enjoying our wealth?,” says another.
It seems slightly obscene to spend so much on a child’s birthday party. La Reve may make exquisite cakes but bakeries like Pie in the Sky can provide pretty great themed cakes for Rs550 a pound. The ostentatious parties are as much about showing off as they are about celebrating. They encourage some to spend beyond their means and seem vulgar in the face of extreme poverty around us.
A few mothers view the culture of excess with distaste. “When you see your six-year old greedily rifling through a goody bag after a birthday party and critiquing the contents, you start to wonder whether you are giving your kids the best possible upbringing,” says one. These mothers are beginning to deprecate the effect extravagant parties are having on their children.
“I was horrified when my son commented on how small his friend’s house was and described the goody bag as ‘lame’”, says Sadia, a mother of two young boys in Karachi. “Luckily, this was on the way home from the party and not in public. But I was still mortified that my child should have such a materialistic and ungrateful attitude.”
Lavish parties encourage a culture of showy consumption and entitlement. The children going to these parties are likely to end up like the spoilt teenagers on US reality show My Super Sweet Sixteen – demanding extravagant presents, jaded by luxury and completely unappreciative of either their parents or the value of any of their many possessions.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 27th, 2013.