‘Kites’ by Mayank Chhaya
Tomorrow, January 14, the sky over my native Ahmedabad will witness its annual kite wars as part of the Uttarayan celebration. To mark the occasion and to spare myself the trouble of writing a fresh piece today, let me reissue a piece I wrote on January 14, 2011. Here it is:
I don’t do nostalgia that well. Coming from me, it sounds bogus. But I am going to indulge myself anyway considering that today happens to be Uttarayan, the D-Day for the kite fliers of Gujarat in general and Ahmedabad in particular.
While residents of many other cities wannbe kite fliers in the league of those in Ahmedabad, there is really no comparison. Kite flying in Ahmedabad is an experience of near nirvanic bliss. When I was growing up learning to fly kites was a defining rite of passage. I got defined when I was nine.
In my extended family the ultimate test of one’s kite flying skills was to be able to fly a kite even while holding a firki (a string spool) and finally cutting a rival’s kite. I did all that without much fuss. So yes, I have been a bloody good kite flier. But then Ahmedabad is teeming with bloody good kite fliers.
Kite flying in Ahmedabad was and remains today an aerial war where victims are almost invariably anonymous. You never really know whose kite you are cutting because there are thousands in the sky. There are two broad ways to wage this war. One is to attack your adversary from below and the other is to swoop down from top. Once your kite gains a certain altitude because of the Uttarayan wind, the taut string becomes a potentially lethal weapon. It is laced with what is called the manjo or manja. In fact, making the manja is quite a process and there are manja makers who have become legends because of the sheer abrasiveness of their product. When I was growing up some of them in the walled city guarded their formula as zealously as the makers of Coca Cola.
The manja is a mixture of flour, industrial adhesive, aluminum oxide, zirconia alumina, powdered glass and various types of colors. The raw string is laced with the manja and allowed to dry for several hours, sometimes overnight. My mamas, maternal uncles, who grew up in the walled city had “undisclosed” sources of specially made string spools which would be delivered in the dark of the nigh away from the prying eyes of neighboring spies. A dozen or so firkis would be brought wrapped in newspapers as if they were some rare contraband.
Coming back to the two main ways to cut your rival’s kite, one of my uncles specialized in attacking from below. What it meant was that he would circle his kite around the rival’s, and at a precise point start pulling the string back with considerable hand coordination. That would rapidly raise his kite’s height again and the resultant contact of his string with the rival’s string would create a cutting edge. That’s where the quality of the manja would come into play. I do not remember a single occasion when this particular kite flier lost his. There were times when after cutting a dozen or so kites, he would cut his own string and let his kite go. Mahesh Mama, that was his name, was a kite flier whose prowess was discussed by us boys in whispered tones.
The other strategy is to swoop down and rapidly release the string as one makes contact with the rival. That rapid release causes friction and eventually cuts either your string or the rival’s. The second way of attacking was preferred by those not blessed with swift arms.
Kite flying began as early as 4 a.m. and went on till 1 p.m. when we would break for lunch. Even though we had protection on (that does not sound right), our fingers would have been slashed at several spots in the first ten minutes. That made eating an excruciatingly painful affair. It was literally rubbing salt and other spices in one’s wounds. At one point my throat was virtually slit because I came in the middle of Mahesh Mama’s ambush of a kite being flown by someone several streets away.
Mahesh Mama’s signature gig was to cut kites rising from nearby terraces even before they had gone up ten feet. That’s how good he was. Let’s just say he was a top gun among kite fliers. For some men in the neighborhood that was nothing short of public emasculation. And we would rub it in by banging on steel platters in a tribal ritual proclaiming triumph.
It was only fitting that such triumphs were celebrated with deliciously rich food. It was a tradition in my maternal grandparents’ family to hide money, coins really, in food. So one had to watch out for a pawali (a quarter) in the daal or 50 paise in the pooris. There was no FDA to enforce rules about choking hazards. Since it was expected that money would be hidden as an Uttarayan gift, we would eat carefully. It never exceeded 50 paise.
At its core flying kite is as much about liberation, as signified by a soaring kite, as it is about being tethered, as signified by the string. It is a great thrill.