Vir was my tutor when I evinced interest in flying kites. He lived next door to us in India and was a legend for his exploits in the cut-throat kite universe. For long I had watched impassively the colorful panoply of kites in the smoky Kolkata sky. Finally I had persuaded my parents to advance me the money for a string-winder spool called latay and two kites.
We lived in a tall apartment building with an extensive terrace, the ideal base for aerial exploration. I loved to be on the terrace, making my kite rise little by little, higher and still higher. Until it was safe to scamper to the left or right, without the fear of my kite suddenly diving with an adverse wind and getting lost. I learned to take advantage of the mildest breeze and slowly earned the skill of maneuvering my kite at will. Vir came to help me, at first to teach me the basics and then to show me the subtleties of kite manipulation.
Vir was a couple of years older than me and worked as a lowly assistant in a grocery store. He couldn’t get a better job, for he was a middle-school dropout. But I admired his encyclopedic knowledge of kites. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese experts, Indian aficionados do not use kites of vastly different shapes and sizes. Indian kites are usually diamond-shaped and short-tailed, distinguished by simple, streamlined designs and quaint names. Vir taught me all: Candle, Glass, Ball, Heart, Betel and Star, displaying those designs; two-colored kites called DoubleBall, NorthSouth, EastWest, BronzeFaced or DogEared, depending on the distribution of their colors; three- and four-colored kites; and lavishly colored kites called Peacock. Though I longed for a peacock, I went, short-funded, for Glass or BronzeFaced whichever was cheaper.
But I had to take the next step in short order. Though I was content to fly on my own and watch my kite streaking across the clouds, I had to reckon there were many other kites in the sky. The reckoning came in the most painful way. I was quietly flying on my own a Thursday afternoon, a festival day, when another kite approached swiftly, without warning. It swooped down like lightning, placed its thread on mine, and quickly released the abrasive thread to snap my line. In a second, my blue-yellow Glass kite, chopped tetherless, floated like a lost cloud and was gone. I was disconsolate, not just because I didn’t have money for another kite. My pride, not to mention my sense of assurance, was dented. I had to do something.
Vir’s expertise came of use. “It is a kite-eat-kite world,” he said firmly. “Even if you want to stay by yourself, the predators will come and eat you alive. You have to defend yourself.”
That meant a full battle cry. I had to learn the strategy and maneuvers of kite war and I had to have the abrasive thread that can decapitate an aggressive kite. I became Vir’s avid apprentice and quickly mastered the push-pull-turn of kite warfare. Then we set about creating the finest killing thread. We ground glass, added adhesive and turmeric for color, passed the thread through this monstrous mix and then dried it before winding it around the spool. Now we had the murderous thread to kill or be killed.
The next few weeks were exciting. I lost several kites, but I also felled several adversaries. I found it embarrassing to call out the victory word, Wo katta, but my mentor had no such compunction and hollered at every turn. If by chance the chopped kite flew in my direction, we had the bonus of gaining an additional kite. It was the modern equivalent of the ancient, brutal practice of gathering a scalp.
Last Sunday, I stood on high ground in a Virginia park and saw my beautiful blue-green kite rise deftly, higher and higher and still higher. Its colors flitted gloriously against the sun-drenched late-morning blue heavens. My heart sang. I was no longer an aging man in a foreign land. I was back again in Kolkata, a sprightly adolescent on the terrace of a tall building, thrilling to the rapture of something senseless and sensational, my unbounded soul rising with every ascent of my kite, higher and higher, until it reached the acme of peace and beauty and total fulfillment.