CHEATING IN BASANT – It wasn’t always supposed to be so dangerous!


LAHORE – Celebrating Basant was banned in 2009, much to the relief of many, but today many people do not agree much with this step made by the Punjab government.
Being part of Lahore’s culture, kite flying is being sorely missed by those who used to look forward to Basant festivities and family reunions, spending time on rooftops and getting the brightest, and most beautifully designed kites in the neighbourhood. The festival would then have kite-tussles in the sky, marked with excited shouts and cries of either victory or loss, and then at last heading back downstairs to discuss eagerly how the day had been.
But today, the recreational sport that Lahore celebrated does not exist. In fact its remnants have diminished to an extent of simply vanishing away.
“Basant is the most evolved sport one can imagine,” says Sohail Azad, who says he has been flying kites from the age of about seven years. To ban Basant was a safety measure taken because it was essential to control the number of deaths that were taking place, because of people, especially motorcyclists and children who used to die brutally thanks to a network of nearly-invisible threads that kites left behind.
Many lives were lost and the tradition was forcefully put to an end, stripping away the work of the labourers who used to manufacture kites. But Sohail Azad, who has made a documentary on Basant’s lost tradition, called “Kati Patang”, winning first prize for Best National Short Film by the British High Commission, specifies that this sport was never about dying people and unsafe playing.
“The real game is one that used to be played by the kite flyers in Manto Park right next to Meenar-e-Pakistan,” says Azad. “This sport did not allow unbreakable threads, and other traditions that involved cheating. Threads, which are made with bits of glass or those that are chemically made so that they are unbreakable and stretchable, were against the rules of the game.”
Azad says these ‘dores’ or threads which were used in kite flying were introduced by those who did not care to play by the rules of the real game. “They even introduced machinery where the sport was all about playing with your hands,” he says. “The wheel around which the thread is spun, or the ‘charkhee’ as it is called became motorized. Some of them even used drill machines, to wind up the extra thread.
In the process of speed winding it up, if anyone came in the middle, he was a dead man.” Added to the list of cheating methods was also another called “hath maarna”. This meant pulling the thread back with such speed that it would cut the other kite’s string like a razor. It may be fun to do but highly dangerous. Even with this, people tended to use motors to pull the string back, something that turned a recreational activity into yet another machine made game.
Today those who want to fly kites, have to travel to Lahore’s outskirts, where population is low, so threats of danger also lessen. Even this has to be done in hiding otherwise players can be arrested and charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). “If the police catches you with kites that are being transported anywhere, they will arrest and charge you,” says Azad.
“So those who want to fly kites, and visit the outskirts on weekends, have hired their labourers from that particular area and pay them to make the kites over there.” But the sport is now restricted to the rich, because to pay for the kites is not something anyone else can do with ease. With inflation and rising prices, the rates of kite flying have also gone up. But this is only restricted to a few, since the rates of the charkhee, the thread and the kites have all gone up.
While once a kite was sold for Rs 5 only, today one cannot pay less than about Rs 40 to 50 for the same kite. Waseem, a resident of Mochi Gate, the biggest market in Lahore for kite manufacturing, tells Pakistan Today that the labourers who used to make kites have now vanished.
“They have left this area since the ban was put up. Kite flying is now banned even out of season, and so their business has failed completely. I cannot even say where they have gone to now, but from here, they have completely vanished, leaving no trace of their existence.”
Waseem says that those who had their own shops have now rented them out, but no one knows where they live, and no one knows where the others have gone. One major organization in this context is the Kite Flying Association which speaks out for those whose businesses have gone down leaving their lives in a miserable mess.
“It is not tough to control the quality of threads and strings for kite flying,” says KFA Secretary General Sheikh Saleem. “If the police can arrest people under ATA for possession of kite flying equipment, then I am sure that they can help implement this too. We are willing to write it down and sign in that we will do our part, but the government should trust us and give us a chance too.”
He blames the Sharif government for creating a Basant Committee and not even calling the KFA in for consultation. “Everything was one sided including the decision to ban Basant. About 260 people have been terribly affected by this ban. There have been suicides, and other serious issues affecting the families of these labourers. Yet still the government refuses to look at the problem from an angle other than their own.”
He says that if Basant is still not allowed this year, it would be an extremely sad day for kite flyers and the end to a wonderful tradition, something which Lahore was always known for and was proud of.