A solitary kite was flying over a busy neighbourhood. It wasn’t a fancy gudda or patang, but a homemade kite that is put together with a plastic bag and a few sticks from a broom.
On a sunny and cold winter’s morning, the kite fluttered above the low-rise houses, not just as a sign of protest but a stark reminder of what once was. My son caught me staring at the kite and asked: “Can you teach me how to fly a kite, Abba?” And as my hands came together, with the thumbs in line, I replied: “I’m not sure I remember myself, son”.
As spring approaches, the longing for Basant has surged. The chatter has already started on social media. But the question remains the same: will kite-flying ever be reinstated? Last February, the Punjab chief minister put the matter to rest unequivocally by stating that “there is a complete ban on Basant”.
Given the quicksand that the ruling PML-N finds itself in at the moment, Basant might not be high on its agenda. However, some might argue that this may be the best time to reopen the conversation surrounding Basant. This is because Basant remains a not-so-distant memory for anyone who grew up in Lahore and its surrounding areas in the 1980s and 1990s.
What was the problem with Basant, anyway? Was it the chemical or glass-laced string that slit people’s throats or the aerial firing which took innocent lives? Probably both. There were other problems as well: electrocution; tripping electricity lines; overexcited people falling from rooftops; and traffic concerns. All of these issues added up and the PML-N government did what it always does: it decided to shut down the circus altogether when, in fact, it could have earned some valuable political points by embracing Basant on its own terms.
If Basant is to be brought back, efforts need to be made to put an end to aerial firing, the use of deadly strings and the traffic jams. This basically means that kite-flying cannot be carried out in residential areas within the city.
So, the authorities should take Basant out of town – so far out that the loose strings no longer pose a threat. There is ample room outside the city where land can be designated for kite-flying and people can rent land from the authorities for this purpose.
But they cannot bring their own strings. The government will need to designate a handful of suppliers who will manufacture the strings according to strict procedures and ensure that there is no chemical and/or glass coating. The government can go a step further and regularise kite manufacturers as well. This will ensure that the string and kite are purchased from government-approved vendors.
In addition, it could provide a source of revenue for the provincial government and, of course, the cottage industry as well. These efforts should coincide with a major crackdown on illegal vendors to compel residents to purchase strings and kites from government-approved sellers. Since the land where the festival is held will be under government control, stringent security measures should be put in place to ensure that no firearms are brought in either. To make sure that the festival has a sufficiently large turnout to make it a success, the government can run special buses that take people from town centres to the venue.
In order to further entice residents to embrace Basant 2.0, the government should create partnerships with food festivals such as the Lahore Eat Festival so that there is an assortment of food stalls at the venue. A stage should be set up and popular artists should be invited to perform throughout the festival.
Critics will argue that this form of ‘controlled festival’ is contrary to what Basant is about. But, to be honest, it seems like a good alternative. Would you rather not fly a kite at all?
On the government’s side, there is a great deal of goodwill to be gained. With the election season around the corner, this goodwill could translate into votes. It’s also entirely possible that in the first year, the festival may not attract the response that a Basant event should. But if the powers that be persevere, then it’s possible that the festival will catch on in two or three years.
Basant and the festivities that are associated with it were once a major tourist magnet. While backpackers and mountaineers are arriving in large numbers in the country’s northern areas, the number of cultural tourists remains paltry. Given that the security situation has visibly improved, isn’t now the right time to find a solution to kite-flying? After all, for a large number of people, the chief minister is the man who took away the kites. Wouldn’t he prefer to be remembered as the man who brought them back?
The writer is a freelance journalist.