x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The festival of kites

Last word Nasir Khan wanders the narrow paths of Lahore's old city looking for signs of a banned holiday.

Nasir Khan wanders the narrow paths of Lahore's old city looking for signs of a banned holiday. Three weeks ago I made my way to Lahore's old city in search of a master kite-maker. This area, which was constructed before Partition, is an overcrowded maze of cobbled streets that ring with the screeching of poorly-oiled bicycles, the blaring horns of lorries and the curses of passers-by making their way to safety . (Of course, it has been noticeably quieter than usual since Tuesday's attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.) the People visit the old city to gawk at historical monuments, to sample the delectable street cuisine (puffed up deep-fried flourcakes are a favourite) and - until recently - to purchase kites.

In the past, every February saw Lahore in the throes of kite fever. Basant, a festival welcoming spring that Lahoris have long celebrated by flying kites, took place on either the first or second Sunday of the month. The festival (known in India as Basant Panchami) has Hindu origins, but has for decades been celebrated by Hindus and Muslims alike, particularly in the Northern Indian state of Haryana and the Pakistani province of Punjab. I am not an ardent kite-flyer, but I am Lahori, and I always enjoyed Basant. I loved the rooftop soirées at hotels, the nightlong parties at farmhouses outside the city, and even the tradition of wearing garish yellow kurtas that represent the springtime blooming of India's mustard fields.

In 2006 the Punjab government banned Basant, citing financial and safety concerns. Most Basant celebrations would conclude with hundreds injured after falling off roofs while flying kites; children would often get hit by cars while chasing kites across a busy road. People would fire bullets in the air, and every few years someone would get hit by one falling to the ground. Huge sections of the city were often plunged into darkness when razor-sharp kite cords rolled in powdered glass (designed to help competitive kite flyers cut other kites from the sky) collided with power lines. (The cords would also occasionally collide with people.) An official at the Lahore Electricity Supply company once told me that Basant outages used to regularly cost the city over $50,000.

But kite-flying was already illegal throughout Pakistan; the Supreme Court banned it in 2005, for exactly these reasons. The Punjabi government had other reasons to crack down on Basant. Religious clerics have always disdained the partying associated with the festival, and hardline nationalists have never approved of celebrating a holiday with Hindu origins. After the Basant of 2006 saw seven people die in kite-related deaths, the clerics and nationalists were joined in their call for a ban by a vocal contingent of public safety advocates. They got what they wanted, and in the following months more than a thousand kite manufacturers and sellers were arrested.

My search for a kite took me up the path that weaves between the 16th-century Badhshahi mosque and the Lahore Fort. Looking for help, I knocked on Yusuf Sallahuddin's door. Sallahuddin is a neighbourhood fixture, one of the men who helped maintain Basant's popularity in the early post-Partition years. Until three years ago, the havelis (stately pre-Partition houses) on Sallahuddin's street would kick-start Basant by throwing open their doors to visitors. I remember attending many of his February parties, the whole place decked up in yellows and oranges, women in flower bracelets gossiping inside while men indulged in one kite-match after another. "It was a beautiful sight," he recalls. "People of all ages dressed in their best and would dance and sing while the sky became adorned with a multitude of colours and patterns."

Sallahuddin directed me to the nearby shop of Hammad Khan, a single room crowded with at least 50 types of kite. They range from pocket-sized to a huge beauty almost four metres tall. Some have jokes or popular lyrics written on them; others have flowers sketched on their fronts. Before Basant was banned, Khan would sell hundreds of kites per day in January and February. "These streets would be crowded with customers who would jostle each other and try to get to the shops first so their favourite kites wouldn't be purchased by someone else," he says. "But look around you; there is hardly anyone."

After the ban, Khan, 40, was forced by the police to shut down his shop. He has only started selling again this year because he thinks the police have become less vigilant now that widespread Basant celebrations are a thing of the past. "I don't know why they are punishing us," he wonders aloud. "People get injured because the rooftops aren't safe, and because the kite-flyers indulge in dangerous practices. You can't blame the kite-makers."

Khan isn't the only one missing Basant. The festival always attracted visitors from all over Pakistan, ensuring that Lahore's hotels and restaurants would be full. Down the road from Khan's shop at the Cuckoo's Den, a favourite dinner spot that looks out over a mosque and the red light district, the waiters all miss the bustle, the colours, the singing that lasted into the early hours of the morning. "Everyone would gather here in their yellows and pinks and oranges and sing and drum the tabletops and enjoy themselves," one remembers. "Around us the sky would light up with colours."

Diehard kite lovers still bring out their favourites, wrap bandages around their fingers to protect them from the sharp door (kite string) and take to the rooftops and open fields where, without much fanfare and with an eye out for any wandering police officers, they have their own private kite-flying parties. I was dragged to such an event last Basant. Twenty friends crammed into four cars and one jeep and roared away to a farmhouse a good hour away from the city. Once there, a few people took out their kites and started flying. But with no other kites in the sky to jostle against, and the lack of a celebrating city around us, even the most enthusiastic gave up and let their kites fall to earth.

Nasir Khan is an advertising executive and freelance journalist in Pakistan.