Here is the slightly longer, original version of a text by me on ‘Kite Flying’ (among other things) that appeared in the latest issue of Outlook, to mark the 15th of August. The version published in Outlook is titledFreedom on A String.
Apologies for cross posting on Reader List.
Go, Fly a Kite !
There is almost nothing about rituals of statehood that appeals to me. The speeches leave me cold and patriotic anthems are the worst, most ponderous form of music ever performed or invented. As for the pomp and circumstance of parades and other solemn but pathetic attempts at grandeur – they only repeat their lessons in how distant the apparatus of the state actually is from the lives of citizens.
Typically, my attention, when flags are raised up poles, is less on the flag and more on the sweat on the brow of the man doing most of the actual hoisting. Because flags, like nations, get stuck in their destinies, and sometimes have to be tugged at vigorously to open and flap about, or let loose their meagre shower of yesterday’s desiccated flower petals. The palpable anxiety of the hoister (who is worried about what might get written into his confidential report if the string snaps, or the flag stay’s tied up) and the thinly masked frustration on the visage of the attendant dignitary, (be they the principal of a school or the president of a republic ) who wants it all over and done with as quickly as possible, are the two performances that I find most moving on these moments. Apart, that is, from the sporadic defecations of ceremonial cavalry horses, caparisoned elephants and aloof camels brought out to lend the parade of the moment a touch of bio-diversity. Somehow, they ring truer than most other attempts to mark such occasions.
Republic Day, with its pornography of ordnance, enormous waste of public money and tacky tableaux is probably the worst offender, but Independence Day, with its schoolchildren bused out to the Red Fort in Delhi and made to suffer the humiliation of security checks at the crack of a humid dawn, doesn’t rank far behind. They, (the schoolchildren at Red Fort) lose a well-earned holiday, and nowadays, the rest of India gets a pious homily from behind bullet-proof glass. Rather than being an occasion for quiet, sober and perhaps personal reflection on what liberty might mean (especially when so many subjects of this republic are denied its substance) and whether it really needs to come all dressed up in the masquerade of a hollow state ritual, Independence Day has become an empty vessel for an increasingly narcissistic commemoration of what it means to simply ‘be’ Indian, as if that were of any real consequence. Meanwhile, the violence that marked partition, co-incident with ‘Independence’, goes un-mourned in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The bizarre continuities, ranging from law and governance to the arcana of state ceremonials, between colonialism and its posthumous progeny – republican nationhood, remain un-reflected upon. What we get instead is an annual faux carnival of top-ten lists to do with an invented ‘Indian-ness’ dished out by magazines and television decked out in tri-colour bad taste.
But there is something about the fifteenth of August that still means a lot to me, and that isn’t about flying flags. It’s about flying kites. The fifteenth of August, as anyone growing up in North India ought to know, is really all about manja and pench, about letting loose a full throated cry ‘bho-katta’, when an airborne kite snaps from its string in the sky, and the mad run and skirmish for its capture that follows before it hits the earth. Its about decoding a persons passions from the colours they choose for their kites, about learning to test the strength of paper and to sense the wind by licking your finger. These, and other elementary lessons in areodynamics are still reasons to look forward to the fifteenth of August each year.
Perhaps it’s a throwback to the boyhood thrill of holding a taut kite-string in the precarious rooftops and bylanes of a ‘refuzee’ colony in west Delhi, head cocked up, eyes locked in a steadfast gaze intent on scanning the clouded August sky, tracking distant, tiny but majestic diamonds of colour as the kites danced to the wind. Their flight taught me more about ‘attaining liberty’ and their spiralling descent more about ‘losing it’ than all the civics lessons on the meaning and significance of ‘Independence Day’ ever could.
Anand Bakshi, in writing the lyrics for the film Kati Patang, (Drifting Kite) did not know that he had, perhaps unwittingly gifted us with the one of the most pithy ways of thinking about the destiny of nationhood and nationalism, that at least I know about. As the song goes, ‘Na koi umang hai, na koi tarang hai’, – there is neither a surge, nor a wave. Ships of state adrift in still, motionless waters, their flags just about fluttering in a spent tailwind, are to me like so many kati patang, drifting kites; neither surge, nor wave, and certainly no pious ritual, can lift them out of their torpor.
What can one do, in such circumstances, but heed the call of Mary Poppins and her friends, Mr. Banks and Bert, and simply, ‘go fly a kite’.
“With tuppence for paper and strings
You can have your own set of wings
With your feet on the ground
You’re a bird in a flight
With your fist holding tight
To the string of your kite
Oh, oh, oh!
Let’s go fly a kite
Up to the highest height!
Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring
Up through the atmosphere
Up where the air is clear
Oh, let’s go fly a kite!’