No more Basant...

Updated February 10, 2017


Where this young lad picked up the germs for the forbidden pastime is a mystery. The news on the channel says he is a teenager who our ever-vigilant law enforcers have swooped upon. He was caught red-handed, twine in hand, his eyes too affixed on the horizon for him to notice the arrival of the policemen whose ways are usually quite loud. He was brought to the police station for having the temerity to fly a kite in these dry days of prohibition in Lahore.

The boy must have been allowed to go free after being admonished. If he was a little more unlucky he might have needed a report by a reporter keen on dilating on the subject’s age to bail him out of the tough spot he found himself in, in his early years. In extreme cases, there have been ritualistic court proceedings against kite-flyers who, it appears, are more often than not young souls.

That is certainly not where the story ends for the curious who must find out how the boy got afflicted. Despite their raw years, they have established a link with tradition. It is quite remarkable that the decade-long ban has been unable to prevent them from soiling their hands in the dirty business of flying kites. It is as if they are part of some underground subversive group that is training young impressionable minds in the art of self-destruction.

####It is quite remarkable that the decade-long ban has been unable to prevent youngsters from getting into the ‘dirty business’ of flying kites.

Kite-flying is a serious offence in Lahore as well as in other parts of Punjab which may periodically suffer on account of officers too lenient to enforce the ban. It has been so for many years — 12 years, maybe more. The grand finale tied to the sport and festival, Basant, meanwhile, has been replaced by a terrible, extremely painful and obviously unwanted annual exercise.

Each year a few weeks ahead of February, the month when Basant used to take place, there is a flurry of totally unneeded activity. It creates unnecessary doubts about the resoluteness of the good government towards its duty to maintain law and order and to take all possible steps to ensure the safety of the citizens it is tasked to look after. Everyone knows where the debate is going to lead to. Even then, everyone arrives on the scene to speak their minds, armed with the most clichéd arguments.

All these people are due for a reminder. It is not exciting enough to talk and talk about cultural events that we cannot bring ourselves to celebrate. What this Basant talk through January and February does is that it adds to your frustration and in extreme situations may lead you to celebrate, if nothing else, the singular act of a teenager to let loose his kite in the free air.

The government probably has its sadistic officials. These officials must from time to time open the window to allow people to hope before they slam it shut in an apparent reconfirmation of just who is the boss in this part of Pakistan. The sequence was repeated with all its usual ups and downs this time round as well.

A few days ago, a report said Basant may be allowed but linked the permission to a condition that was impossible to meet. It required those wanting the revival of the festival to assure the chief mister of complete safety of everyone on Basant day. This is a prerequisite no soul on earth can fulfil and therefore the very purpose of holding any kind of debate on the topic was jeopardised.

Perhaps the most bemused by the sights and sounds surrounding a non-existent Basant are outsiders who have yet to come to terms with Lahori fetishes. A journalist with origins deep in the country points out that it is not just about one festival; the same kind of approach is found in dealing with all kinds of urs and other local festivals throughout the province, if not in the entire country.

Many of these small local festivals were discontinued and labelled as dangerous in the wake of the wave of militancy that gripped Pakistan in recent years. No visible or tacit effort is under way as yet to help local people rediscover these events which brought out so many facets of their lives.

To the contrary, law places severe restrictions on anyone who tries to bring back the melas. These fairs that in the past were such a highlight of life, have, it seems, come to be increasingly viewed by the current rulers as occasions that promoted unwanted trends. For example, it is not unusual for a local administrator to not permit an event on the allegation that it featured an ‘obscene’ offering. It could be that many people agreed with the local officials’ reading of what is vulgar and obscene and what is not.

Much more important in the case of Pakistan today is to determine whether the concerned officer is willing to join the people in their search for a compromise resolution that allows them to have the mela or whether the officer is more inclined towards using the authority at his or her disposal to quickly quash an event that was long there on the calendar.

The officials are under tremendous pressure to deliver on the right side, even more so in the reign of rulers known for standing no nonsense from their subordinates.

“Punjab CM said … There is complete BAN on Basant. Concerned District Police Officers will be responsible for any violation of the ban.”

With orders so powerful, expect a few more blundering teenagers to land up in police stations this spring. You may marvel at their genius of discovering a thread of tradition that was long lost to the people of Lahore and its surroundings but please don’t waste the brilliant season arguing about a revival that cannot be.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2017