It's about 7.30 pm, already dark out. I travel with Raju on the back of his motorbike to a slum village about 15 minutes away from Rayagada. I've been here once before. Tatty mud shacks with makeshift rice bag roofs. Nothing much of anything really.
We arrive in pitch darkness. Girls from the village hear the motorbike, they run screaming towards us like 13 year old Justin Beiber fans. I get mobbed. They are grabbing my arms, kissing my hands and pinching my cheeks like I'm a baby...I was not prepared for this.
Armed with 10 girls clinging to each side, we slowly walk our way to the house searching for the birthday girl. Little Miss Soni is standing there grinning from ear to ear. She knows it's her turn, she can't hide her excitement. She is given two princess dresses which she tries on for size and admires and adores them both.
Kids in the village are given balloons and are furiously puffing away to get air in them. Now...cake time! A beautifully decorated cake is revealed from it's cardboard box housing and is laid before the birthday princess. Her smile is ever-growing...didn't think it was even possible.
It seems every child (and mother) from the entire village has heard what's going on and is gathered around little Soni. The candles are lit and an ephemeral glow lights all faces. Raju starts belting out the happy birthday song, and all the kids in the village join him. It's a track on repeat...no beginning, middle or end, it just keeps ringing out in a tornado of musical notes.
Somehow, finally, it ends. Soni is instructed to blow out her candles and make a wish. She closes her eyes and does just that, which in return starts the happy birthday track on repeat again. The only way to stop it is to hand little Soni a knife to start cutting the cake.
Indian tradition has the birthday girl feeding the cut cake to others by hand, as I'm a guest, somehow I'm first on this list. Soni picks up a freshly cut piece of cake and crams it lightly in my mouth. All I can taste is sugary creamy goodness. I take the leftover piece and reciprocate this action. Soft icing melting between my fingers and smudging the pretty little face of Miss Soni. This process is repeated for Soni's close friends and family and before long the rest of the cake is divided up and shared amongst the village folk.
Time to keep moving, I have a train to catch to the next city...I wish the birthday girl again and plant a big juicy kiss on her cheek. The other girls in the village see this and the next thing I know, I'm being mobbed again. This time with cake-covered hands grabbing my head, and my face swamped with kisses! I stumble drunk from love through the darkness back towards the motorbike (still with all the kissing going on) and somehow manage to get on the back. Raju waves goodbye to the girls as do I, and says. 'See you for the next birthday'