There appears to be something seriously wrong with us as a society. We yearn for entertainment and recreation (a fact borne out by the crowds that throng picnic spots, musical concerts, sporting events and hill stations), but our behavior wrings all the fun out of these occasions – often causing tragic accidents. Take for example the Basant Festival celebrated in Punjab on both sides of the border. The celebrations mark the end of winter and the advent of spring – hence the maxim ‘Ayee Basant, Paala Urant’ (Basant is here as Winter Flees). Falling in the Punjabi calendar month of Magh, the day is celebrated by people of all religions and traditionally hallmarked by kite flying and ‘melas’.

There was a time when the residents of Lahore, particularly the inhabitants of the walled city, waited with rising anticipation and excitement as Basant approached. Weeks before the actual day, ‘addas’ producing kite string or ‘dor’ were set up at various spots. These were nothing, but two wooden vertical wooden supports set around fifty meters apart, with multiple parallel lines of thread strung tightly between them. This string was then coated with finely ground glass mixed in ‘layee’ (a locally made adhesive) called the ‘manjha’. The finished product was tightly wound on a ball like paper core in overlapping neat lines, each consisting of one length of string between poles). These lines were known as ‘peerhis’ and made an intersecting pattern. The total length of the thread was measured in ‘goats’ and the resultant ball of kite string was called a ‘pinna’. Regretfully the ‘pinna’ has now been replaced by the ‘charkhi’ – a wooden spindle-like contraption to ‘house’ the ‘dor’.

Throngs of kite buyers began visiting their favorite kite makers, days ahead of the actual festival and one could spot the experts out of them testing the colourful tissue paper product for strength, balance and flexibility. Kites came in different shapes and sizes – for the amateurs there was the ‘guddi’ and the ‘gudda’, with romantic names such as ‘pari’ etc. The real professionals however chose to fly the ‘patang’ or its more streamlined version – the ‘kup’. This category often tested the flier’s skill to its limits, sometimes ending with lacerated fingers.

As January began, kites began appearing on the Lahori skyline and as each day brought the festival closer, their number increased. While kite fliers operated from roof tops, another category of ‘kite enthusiasts’ did their ‘thing’ from ground level. These were ‘kite looters’ or bands of men and children armed with long poles crowned with thorny flora. Their eyes glued to contesting kites, they would madly follow the ‘defeated’ one with its severed string trailing behind it - to ‘loot’ it. They indulged in this activity oblivious of traffic and risk of being run over. In eight times out of ten, the kite was torn to shreds as each ‘looter’ tried to snare it with his pole, but I guess in the end, it was the adrenaline rush of the chase that mattered and not the kite.

On the evening before the actual day, family and friends converged on relatives that lived in the old city. No one slept that night as preparations were made for the next morning, while the females of the family went about preparing food (usually ‘nihari’ or ‘paye’) in large quantities. Then came the dawn - rooftops began to fill, the air resounded with bugle calls mixed with lusty calls of ‘bo kaata’ and the sky above Lahore became a riot of colour.

Motor cycles were in common use even then, but one never heard that kite thread had sliced someone’s throat. A few casualties did occur – results of a child falling from a roof or being hit by vehicular traffic while ‘looting’ a kite and in a few odd cases the outcome of a violent dispute over use of foul tactics, when two kites joined battle. The thread used then was covered with ground glass as it is today, but here the similarity ends. We have ourselves murdered this festival by our callousness and disregard for the rules of kite flying. ‘Steel threads’ have appeared in an egotistic bid to avoid losing a ‘paicha’ or a contest, when two kites are maneuvered into a position where their string crisscrosses and the better string coupled with deft ‘piloting’ cuts the opponents kite loose.

If a ban on kite flying has been imposed, it is the renegade kite fliers who are responsible. The administration too must share a part of the blame for their inability to enforce the ban on use of the killer string. Banning an age old festival, which had become an international tourist attraction is definitely not the answer.

 The writer is a historian.