Tales from the Van: The Man with Two Birthdays

Sometimes stories come to me from the strangest of places – the back of my retinal screening van, for one!

This time when my patient stepped into the van, I *knew* he would have a story for me. Don’t tell me how I knew; I just felt it, deep in my bones. He wasΒ  old, but awesome, with a spring in his step and a zingy, bright-green t-shirt which looked wonderfully summery with his immaculate, white sport shoes. I had been concerned, because his last name looked unpronounceable, but I did my best and his grin and reply in accented but perfect English immediately allayed my fears that we would have a communication problem. He also smelled really, really good…there’s something about a chap who wears a really good-smelling man-perfume and has twinkly eyes (even if he was in his seventies!), which just gets to me.

f5b9b-talesfromthevanIt wasn’t until I was doing the second ID check, in the darkened room at the back of the van that the story began to unfold. I asked for his date of birth and he gave me a date in the 1940s, then paused, grinned cheekily, and told me:

“Actually, I have two birthdays…like the Queen!”

How could I pass that up?

I finished inputting his information, like the diligent professional I am, and then the storyteller in me took hold.

“How on earth did you come to have two birthdays?”

He had been born in India a short while before partition, (when the British Empire, as a parting gift – given in their infinite wisdom to their former colony – divided the country in two on their way out, granting (by all accounts) independence and mayhem) and his father had diligently written the date and time of his birth in a large diary, as he had done for all of the birth dates of his other children.

When partition happened in 1947, the family had to suddenly gather up their worldly goods and flee from the newly created Pakistan, to take up residence in India (as we know it today) and the diary was lost. He was still a tiny baby, and the upheaval and instability of the time meant that the lost diary was really the last thing on anyone’s mind.

In her autobiography, ‘Climbing the Mango Trees’, Madhur Jaffrey remembers the events of that tumultuous August and the succeeding months:

The Union Jack was formally lowered and the Indian tricolour went up. We screamed our lungs out. Thousands of caps were flung skywards. I felt giddy.

The joy did not last too long. In what was the new West Pakistan, Muslim fanatics began butchering Hindus and Sikhs and appropriating their houses. Hindus in the truncated India began slaughtering Muslims, whom they blamed for the break-up of the country. Neighbours who had trusted each other now betrayed each other. Some neighbours who had never paid much attention to each other now hid and saved each other. Mobs marched through villages, towns and cities, killing those of faiths other than their own. Cornered men would be asked to drop their pants to distinguish circumcised Muslims from uncircumcised Hindus. If what came into view did not suit the viewers, daggers, guns and knives put a quick end to precious lives.

A massive, multidirectional migration began: Hindus crammed trains heading for India, clinging to doors and roofs; Muslims jammed trains heading for the two Pakistans. Sometimes the trains arrived at their destinations filled with nothing but dead bodies, having been intercepted by a mob with massacre on its mind. A million people died. Several million lost all their belongings as they ran or were chased from their homes. Angry, hapless refugees were piling up on both sides of the new borders.

My patient, then a tiny, infant refugee, lost his birthday.

When he was about six, he went to school and needed a date of birth to put on his school certificates but his father could no longer remember, and picked the time of year he thought was right, choosing a date which seemed to fit the bill. This is his official birthday still, for changing it would require undoing the paperwork of his entire life, and putting it back together re-framed a month later.

He knows the truth now, because he found his birthday again. Much later in life, when somehow the planets aligned or the right box was being looked through, the diary came to light again, and there were the pages with all the days and dates and times of the children’s birth. His, and his siblings’, all present and corrected, in his father’s handwriting.

He has that page in his possession now, at home, bearing testimony to a time of great cultural upheaval; his father’s fastidious record-keeping, care and pride; and the peculiar manner of callousness with which government decisions can rob a small boy of the chance to have sweets and presents and party games with a certainty the rest of us take for granted; that we are correctly rooted in the history of our own timeline.

He smiled equably at me, as my mind boggled, and gave a small shrug.

“I don’t mind”, he said, laughing,”as long as I get two presents.”

Birthday TimelineAside from the historical, cultural and religious ramifications this act of partition had, and the cost in lives which it exacted upon the people involved, it was this story which affected me most. I am perhaps too used to tales of violence, aggression and murder in the name of whoever’s version of right has been accepted. Perhaps I have grown weary or too accustomed, but I find myself able to hear of these atrocities without rememering to personalise them and bear in mind that these stark numbers represent intensely painful losses of people of intrinsic value.

But this loss; of a birthday – something I have always taken for granted – unsettled me.

What’s your take? Is your birthday a certainty? What might it do to the psyche to be uncertain about such a fundamental thing? Or is it fundamental at all? Tell me your thoughts…



66 thoughts on “Tales from the Van: The Man with Two Birthdays

  1. Wow! You really do have the most interesting vocation.

    Other thoughts while reading this post: History is unfortunately written by the winners and some things tend to get lost.

    On the humorous side: No way some Astrologist was getting it right with this guy.


    • History is often written by the winners, but fortunately these days, with the ramp up in social documentation by everybody, not just the winners, we’re probably entering an incredibly well-balanced time of documented history. Bad thing is it’s all kitten pictures and recipes gone wrong…

      And no. But astrology’s hokum, so… πŸ™‚

      YES! I love my job though. It’s fascinating.


  2. Not for the first time, I wish to be a fly on the wall of your van. Your patients fascinate me and clearly you with their lives because they really lived. My father was born in 1940, and it blows my mind that he lived during a time of such turmoil. It also makes me realize how I should have paid more attention in World History. Aside from that tale, the telling was go good, so visual, so real. I love hearing a good story teller do her thing, and I feel as though we just sat over coffee (maybe tea for you) as you told me about your day at work.

    Sorry it took me so long to comment. I read it several days ago and forgot to come back to respond, but it was too good not to tell you that much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They are fascinating people indeed, but secretly, I think everyone is, because we all have a story. It’s just that the ones from (particularly my elderly) patients are naturally tangled up in some huge social and historical upheavals, the like of which I’ve not lived through. I bet your father has some good stories to tell. And as for ‘should have’ – I *hated* history class with a passion, and dropped it as soon as I was allowed, at 13. Never touch the stuff if I can help it, yet more recently, because of the personal connection, I’ve found it interesting, so perhaps I like history via a person who lived there, rather than theoretically, through books.

      As for the compliment on the telling, thank you πŸ™‚ I’m glad you enjoyed it, and very happy you came back to let me know πŸ™‚ (yes, tea for me! thanks)


      • I love Historical Fiction novels (with true history, no harlequin Historical Fiction) because I get a bit of history, but it’s not told through some boring teacher or professor. I guess in a sense, it’s similar to your patients, only they actually *lived* it. It’s pretty amazing, really.


        • Harlequin history? That’s not a phrase I’ve come across before. I like autobiographies, but history is still (on the whole) quite a turn-off for me. Yet I love museums…hmmm

          Well, I am nothing if not an enigma. And definitely with you on making it as non-boring as possible.


          • Oh, what I mean is that I’ve picked up a book from the “historical fiction”shelf only to find that it was loosely set in historical times but had not fact based history in it. I like books more like Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, an author who does his historical research and creates fictional characters to live in historical moments. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

            Liked by 1 person

            • *grins* OHHHHH right yeah…I gotcha. Sure, everyone knows that. Harlequin history. Pffft πŸ™‚

              *quickly hides blank face*

              No, okay, you caught me up πŸ™‚

              Remind me to send you a pic sometime of the incredible mountain of books I have yet to read (and keep adding to) and then you get to try to convince me that Pillars of the Earth is my Next Big Read πŸ™‚

              I’m trying very hard to finish Julius (Daphne Du Maurier) and Five Quarters of the Orange (Joanne Harris) so that I can move onto The Time Quartet (Madeleine L’Engle – the one Samara wrote a *beautiful* review for) and the next of Laura’s books πŸ™‚


  3. That is simply terrifying! But these stories, oh! I am near envious that you get to hear them and meet these interesting people with such history. This gentleman sounds like a gem. I’m sure you enjoyed your time with him and when his story began I’m sure the ‘twinkle’ in your eye matched his.


    • I was very pleased to hear him begin, I have to say. I was probably a bit encouraging πŸ™‚

      And…these are truly just ‘people’ – nothing special, and at the same time, completely extraordinary, as everyone is. I just make time to listen to their story, when they have it in them to tell. This gentleman was wonderful. But then, they all are πŸ™‚


  4. How incredibly scary that must have been for his parents. I can’t even imagine. My doctor had to flee Iraq because she was a female physician. She ran across the country and sought refuge in Canada. Her son was killed on their way.
    You don’t really think about how others live across the way and how they must keep safe. So sad.
    I hope that he does get two birthdays. That would be kick ass.
    PS. My grandma had two birthdays only because she lied on her drivers licence. She didn’t want people to think she was old. Her headstone has the wrong birth date.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember that about your grandma. She was a wiley one! That’s still kind of awesome.

      But not awesome at all about your doctor. That’s really sad. I’m glad she was safe, but good grief…the things people do to each other for the most SILLY of reasons 😦


  5. I love old people’s stories, so much. They remind me that we have it so easy these days. That life has changed so much – and maybe, not always for the better. I actually know a person (or used to anyway) who has two birthdays as well. Her home situation when young was awful, and she never knew when her birthday was. She finally got to live with some distant relatives, who gave her a birthday, but she was never sure…

    Liked by 1 person

    • That must have been very unsettling, especially if her young life was rough – to have her birthday lost as a result…I can’t quite imagine that. I’m glad the relatives gave her a birthday, and I hope the remainder from then on were happy ones.

      And yes – we have it easy. Definitely. Hearing these stories is a stark reminder to be thankful.


  6. I knew that India was part of the British Empire at one point — but I never knew what had come after! If there is anything constant about the world, it is the repeated atrocities and genocide that seem to happen over and over since the beginning of time. The oppression, fear, and senseless acts of violence just baffle and overwhelm me! I’m glad your spritely gentleman told his story so that you could share it with us — and I could learn something new today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. You are the severalth ‘murican to say they didn’t know much about the aftermath. Or even that there was one. Perhaps this is why people find history fascinating (I know I usually don’t) – the personal touch which comes through learning about someone else’s heritage, rather than dusty book-learning.

      And yes – history repeats itself with appalling consistency *sigh*


  7. On the days you are not liking your job remember these moments;) Each person you assist has the potential to add to your life in ways you might never have considered. You, as a writer, sharing this man’s story makes his story timeless. And in a tiny way, makes him timeless. Imo, that is the magic of blogging.
    Nice work:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahhh now I didn’t think of that! I like that. I am rendering people immortal (for now) and that’s awesome. What a thought! And today, office day, I don’t like my job. So I’ll think about that. THANK YOU πŸ™‚


  8. Strangely enough, my Dad has had three birth dates in his time! πŸ™‚

    He came over to England, landing at Liverpool, as so many of his compatriots have, in 1947, when he thinks he was 16. He was the baby in a family of sixteen children, and had spent his life on the family farm, digging peat for the fires, and having religion, rather than education, knocked into him at the local Catholic school.

    When he got to Liverpool, he was asked his date of birth, but wasn’t sure, so named a year, month, and day that he thought it was, and went on into the city to find somewhere to live and work. He soon met up with a fellow countryman, and they managed to find digs, but work was scarce, so they decided to head off to London, to see if their luck would change there. Once in London, they soon found work in a factory together, then met sisters that they fell in love with, and soon married (my Mum and Aunt).

    He needed his date of birth for the marriage certificate and, as one of his older sisters was coming to visit just before the wedding, she told him the date he was using was wrong, but that she’d bring the information from the date that was written in the family bible, so Dad had to then inform the authorities of his actual change of date and year (he was a year older than he’d thought he was! Lol

    Years passed, and it became the habit in our family to celebrate both birth days with Dad but, about 10 years ago, the sister born nearest to dad came over for a visit, at the time of Dad’s ‘real’ birthday, only to inform him that this was actually the birth date of his next older brother, who had died when he was born! Fortunately, she remembered dad’s actual birth day – which was yet another date, and year (it turned out he was the same year as the first date, but 10 months on).

    As you can imagine, after almost a lifetime of celebrating that second date, he decided against changing it back officially, but he has the advantage of having three ‘birth days’ a year to celebrate now! Lol

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am so impressed by people who can live through atrocity and unfathomable hardship to not only survive, but to come out with humor and grace and forgiveness.


    • Yes – he was an inspiration, though I wonder if he would have been more riled if he’d been older when he lived through it all…still. he grew up in the aftermath, which can’t have been easy.

      p.s. you wanna see amazing forgiveness and strength and grace, check out Beth’s post at Sisterwivesspeak.com….wow!


  10. oh wow, this was fascinating and sweet! Of course, the part about the turmoil….I had no idea. That’s awful! You retold his story so gorgeously and with such care. I bet if he read it, he’d get teary eyed. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ohhhh he was *such* a sweet gentleman – I really warmed to him. The turmoil was bad, and it…I can’t describe. The book by Jaffrey goes into further detail about some of the impact it had on her friends and neighbours, and although it’s a really gorgeous, wonderful, evocative, beautiful book (one of my favourites), I didn’t feel it was right to share such bloodthirstiness on a post about birthdays and the intrinsic (or not) value of knowing when you began.

      Thank you, BW – I did my best πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What a cool story. You have some of the most interesting stories from the back of your van. Birthdays are a big thing in my family, so I can imagine that if one of us had two, both would be celebrated. That’s just how we roll. πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, they’re a pretty big deal in my family, too – a real chance to celebrate the person. I think we’d have twice the fun, but just myself, I prefer knowing where I’m rooted in my timeline πŸ™‚

      I do get to meet some awesome people.i love it πŸ™‚


  12. A really interesting story. Thanks (to you and to him) for sharing. Identity is the cumulation of so many formal and informal factors, and the individual coming to terms and being a peace with those factors. Its so complex, and we do like dates and anniversaries, don’t we? Perhaps they anchor our sense of identity?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes – we build our lives around them to an extent, and I’m sure it’s more than just that they’ve been emphasised by the commercial aspect, because historically, such dates were always important, too. There’s something very powerful about knowing our place within history, and marking the anniversaries of the important dates – I’d say that they definitely have an impact on our identity.


  13. My grandma doesn’t know her actual age for certain, for similar reasons. She and her family left Germany for Canada in a hurry during the onset of WWII, and the records were left behind. It got kind of complicated for her when it came time to retire, I think: she didn’t want to retire and was all like “I don’t even actually think I’m that old!” Haha. She stayed on a couple extra years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ohhh now that’s very cool that she used it to her advantage! What a clever way of getting around the need to retire! She must have really loved her job.

      I suppose wherever there are refugees, there will be children whose birthdays get left behind. I guess perhaps that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to have more of them, on reflection.


  14. It’s the impact that governments’ changes have on individuals and families that makes the biggest difference, as evidenced in your post.

    My birthday is a certainty, and I do think that it is a fundamental piece of information, at least in societies where such things are celebrated and acknowledged.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes – that’s true enough. I struggle a lot with the way governments often seem to make decisions which positively impact themselves and neglect to give adequate thought to the ‘common man’.

      I think it’s quite fundamental, too, but you’re right to remind me that not all societies care to keep record of such things πŸ™‚


  15. (You have a typo, near the bottom, “rememering” – delete this part of my comment, and no one will ever know. πŸ™‚ )

    I love his view, that two gifts rights the situation, but…it would disturb me immensely. To me, a birthday is intrinsic – this is the day when a person’s story starts. To have that be uncertain, the foundation is off to a wobbly start. It’s a small thing, but it feels huge to me.

    I’m curious, how close were the dates?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind – happy to be called out on it! I typed very late last night (shhh don’t tell!)

      The dates were just over a month apart. And the way you describe – yes, that’s where I’m at with it. I think I’d find it very difficult not to know.


  16. Hi Lizzi,

    My husband has two birthdays – one official and the other real! His father wanted him to go to a school, he happened to be younger than the specified date and so his date of birth was lowered to adjust it according to the rules and so it was recorded. Now we celebrate both the birthdays but only with one present!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! So he had it to cheat the system! That’s sneaky πŸ™‚ It must have been a very good school – there must have needed to be some level of tricksiness to ‘prove’ the false date! How unusual! So is the false birthday the ‘official’ one?

      Thank goodness he only needs one present πŸ™‚


  17. It’s ironic you ask about birth dates being a certainty, Lizzi. Because of my dysfunctional relationship with my parents (now deceased…miss them terribly) I kid that I was adopted. But, ya know what? Were it not that I look so much like my Dad and Uncle it would give me pause for thought. I would absolutely LOVE to meet this man and with his blessing, read his diary. I’m fascinated with time and era and nostalgia of days behind me so you are truly blessed to get to hear these stories. More stories from the van please! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love getting stories from the van, though they aren’t coming thick and fast! I’ll keep writing them up as they happen, though – I find them fascinating.

      I wonder if familial similarity is as much an important thing as a birthday. Or more so…that’s an interesting train of thought…

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Lizzi, in spite of the horror of the upheaval and genocide, what I take away from this story is your gentleman’s sense of humor:

    β€œI don’t mind”, he said, laughing,”as long as I get two presents.”

    It is the tale of a true survivor. He survived with grace, with wit, with skills that have served him well in life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He was lucky – he was only a baby when he went through it all, so it’s a testament to his parents and good timing, I guess. But yes – he had a wonderful, joyful spirit. I enjoyed meeting him.


      • Yes, it no doubt helped that he was an infant and that his family fled violence. Love his spirit nevertheless. Still a survivor in my book. The mind finds creative ways of coping.


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