What once was

December 31, 2018


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE new year is around the corner and the mid-winter festival has just passed. There is the promise of the spring that is to come, and the hope of the lifting of spirits. The latter was given a fillip recently, when on Dec 18, the Punjab government announced that it was lifting its ban on the celebration of the Basant festival, and that the occasion — usually held on the second weekend of February — would be allowed to be honoured in 2019.

The ban on celebrating Basant, a Punjab-specific event, is now some 12 or 13 years old. Essentially an event to welcome the spring, non-religious and entirely culture-related, it has sorely been missed by the citizens of Lahore where it was primarily celebrated in Pakistan (though other cities including Faisalabad did towards the end try to jump on the bandwagon).

Basant in Lahore has had a fairly illustrious — or perhaps chequered — career. A long, long time ago, perhaps something like 30 years or more, it was a time when people came out on to their rooftops to enjoy the sun that was beginning to warm up, to drive away the dregs of the winter, savour the last of the season’s oranges, and dress up in bright yellows in anticipation of the summer that was round the corner. At the heart of the practice of Basant is kite-flying, with, in modern times, an entire industry growing around it — the kites themselves, and string, clothing for the ladies and the associated benefit for textiles and tailors. People getting together always means food and drink, so there was that economic boost.

In later years, by around the 1990s, Basant in Lahore became a massive event. The corporates caught up with the mood, and would host large-scale events that involved thousands of people and millions of rupees. The rooftops of buildings in the city would be rented out per night — because by then Basant had become a full two- or three-day weekend event — and similar space in the Walled City would have to be booked months in advance, given the unending charm it offers. This was a time at which at the time of the festival, airline and even train tickets into Lahore would be entirely sold out, because anyone who could would be heading in to simply fly a kite. The days would be filled with chimes of ‘bo kata’ on the rooftops, and the nights would reverberate with music while white kites studded the sky like diamonds.

Will Lahore’s skies be studded with diamonds again?

But Basant, unfortunately, grew too big for its boots, in a manner of speaking. The official reason for the ban imposed on it was glass-coated kite-string, which caused a number of deaths as a result of it literally being cutthroat. The city administration said that it had tried to shut down the glass-coated kite-string industry, but had not managed to do so, and therefore it was the festival itself that had to be banned. Also blamed was the cost to city infrastructure by litter, including fallen kite-string shorting out electricity transformers.

But the reading of many people is a little different: Basant had become a time when Lahore partied, in unison and uproariously, and that — so goes the theory — would clearly not do. It is hard to imagine that a city administration as efficient as that of Lahore (entirely unlike the orphaned Karachi, for example) would not have been able to clamp down on the glass-coated kite-string manufacturers, or find creative ways of coming up with safe spaces for the Basant celebrations, such as the many parks and other open-air venues the city has. According to this line of reasoning — held by many, many people in the city — Basant simply became too much of a party for the conservatives of the world to bear.

So it was welcome news that the Punjab government had decided to lift its ban. Many around Pakistan started looking forward to the possibility of the revival of the magic, and the celebration of something purely cultural and rooted in the very soil of the heartland. Unfortunately, matters progressed in a somewhat different direction. After that Dec 18 announcement, the decision was challenged in the Lahore High Court where the petitioner claimed that it was “unconstitutional” to allow a leisure activity “that results in the loss of human lives”. Further, the petitioner has asked the court to declare the provincial government’s decision illegal.

That may be all fitting and proper, but the Punjab government’s response has been far from satisfactory — at least, in the opinion of some. On Dec 26, its counsel told the court that “the decision to celebrate Basant is merely a recommendation at this point … A final decision has not been taken yet”; in other words, the city administration appears to be backing down over the issue.

It may well be a while, if ever, that the sky of Lahore at night is filled with diamonds again.

The writer is a member of staff.


Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2018