City City Bang Bang, Columns

Romancing the sky

This Independence Day, driving through the Delhi, one could tell the affluent areas from the rest of Delhi by just looking at the sky. In the midst of an empty sky, one could discern shrill screams of vibrance, as clusters of kites jostled together noisily in small outbreaks of joy. The richer neighbourhoods, spread over kilometres in South Delhi, had no time for kites, which now seem to have become the preserve of the inner city, which in Delhi lies within the folds of the rich. The decline in kite flying is a nationwide phenomenon, and barring attempts being made by Gujarat and some other parts of India, it seems that the time for this simple sport has passed.

It was a different story growing up. In Delhi, the appointed day was the 15th of August, while in some other parts of India, it was Makar Sankranti or Uttarayan, on the 14th of January. Legend had it that on those days, one couldn’t see the sky for all the paper that scaled its invisible walls and while that claim was a bit of an exaggeration, its heart was in the right place. Like any pursuit that has deep roots in culture, kite flying came along with its own arcane rituals, its own customised vocabulary and some unwritten conventions that the civilised always followed. From buying the kite, preparing the maanjha, threading the kite with the ‘kanni’ to actually flying it, a whole set of protocols needed to be observed. Once the kite was in the air, one could savour the sheer pleasure of being connected to the universe with a string or engage in the more martial pursuit of ‘cutting’ the string of another kite and if successful scream out blood curdling gibberish (in Delhi for some reason that I have never been able to fathom, the preferred battle cry was Ay-bo, Kaattteey). The ‘looting’ of these defeated monarchs as they drifted unpredictably down from their aerial perches was another evolved sub-culture with groups of urchins roaming the streets looking to snag the kites as they descended to earth. Nothing felt more like manna from heaven when a kite just happened to swoop into one’s terraces, an uninvited but rapturously welcomed guest.

Kite flying represents perhaps the purest connection we experience with the invisible forces of nature. As the kite cuts into the face of the sky, it is as if we are holding the wind with our hands as we shape the sky with our little patch of paper. Getting the kite up in the sky required skill and effort, which came easily to some who could coax wind out of a dead sky while to others like me, it required intense labour and desperate prayer. But once the kite blustered its way into the sky, and as it receded into a tiny speck into the far distance, one could feel nothing but the exquisite harmony between oneself and the universe, as some glorious equilibrium was silently negotiated between the wind and one’s finger. For those magical moments we were in cahoots with the wind, the product of a silent winking conspiracy between ourselves and all of nature. The kite responded to every twitch of the finger and one was torn between a sense of mastery and extreme humility at the same time.

Kite flying is in many ways, the one experience where one can harness the raw power of nature with a degree of precision and control without having to surrender to its forces. In most other instances, as in the case of extreme sports, bending natural forces to one’s will, requires one to immerse oneself in its unpredictable magnificence. Here, nature is tamed not by overwhelming power but by calibrated humility as one sends a self-effacing emissary that dances to the tune of the wind, but in doing so, fulfils its purpose. The meekness of the kite is the key to its success, for anything more substantial would make the wind impossible to control. The kite revels in the mastery that nature enjoys over human beings and it finds a way to show us that control is not synonymous with overwhelming force.

Every flag flown is a challenge and the kite was no exception. The meditative solitude of a single kite riding the sky was an automatic challenge to other kites and it is small wonder that war broke out frequently between these wind-crazed conquerors. Kite wars were fought bitterly, and involved a combination of patience, timing, technique and unpredictable manouevres. The winner gained nothing but the continued pleasure of staying in the sky, while the loser felt the castrated sense of emptiness as the wind-enhanced tug of the kite in one’s hand disappeared abruptly, leaving the limpness of the string behind.

Perhaps in today’s times, kite flying is too primitive, in that it relies too much on what we are born with, rather than what we have acquired, to succeed. It is for most part, too lonely a pursuit and when it becomes competitive, the enemy is mostly unseen. Victory rarely means the visible vanquishment of the other while defeat is all too palpable. It is also a sport only for participants and in a culture where following sports has come meaning watching it rather than playing it, perhaps it calls for too much effort. As more high-rise buildings gobble up the sky and more terraces give way to water tanks and penthouses, perhaps the future of this glorious pursuit is in some jeopardy. On the other hand, for those who wish to experience the naked pleasure of ungloved freedom, it might be time to set sail for the sky attached to a colourful piece of paper, tail a-wag.

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