To say in the US “Go fly a kite” is not a friendly admonition, but equivalent to saying, “Go jump in the lake.” But, instead of getting offended if one were to act on the advice, I believe one would discover a whole new world. It is a pity that few fly kites in the US. The Americans are missing out on a great deal of fun. Baseball and bowling simply don’t compare.
Vir was my tutor when I evinced interest in flying kites. He lived next door to me in Kolkata and was a legend for his exploits in the kite fight universe. For long I had watched passively the colorful panoply of kites in the smoky Kolkata sky. I had finally persuaded my parents to advance me the money for a string-winder spool, locally called latay, and two kites.
We lived then in a large 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 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 being lost. I learned to take advantage of a mild breeze and slowly earned the skill of maneuvering my kite at will. Vir came periodically to assist 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, sizes and hues. 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.
Now 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” (vanquished), 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. Doubtless it was the modern equivalent of the ancient, brutal practice of gathering a scalp.
Last Sunday, as I stood on high ground in the Virginia park and saw my blue-green kite flying gloriously against the bright late-morning sky, my heart sang. I was back again in Kolkata, on the terrace of a tall building in College Street, thrilling to the joy of doing something pointless and wonderful, 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.