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Winds of no change

Updated January 11, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THE PTI’s journey from being viewed as good-looking JI to increasingly been suspected as a more forward-looking PPP has had its own strange pitfalls.

One of them certainly has been Fayyazul Hassan Chohan: recovering from bashing the bold actresses of the Lahore stage to suddenly declaring that the city will celebrate Basant this year in the second weekend of February, as was the case before the festival was banned.

The announcement had the typical ministerial sense of finality about it, and was bound to strike a chord with all those who have not quite been able to shrug Basant off as a critically unwanted affliction, despite the pile of evidence that paints the festival as not just undesirable but evil. It is a measure of the influence the kite-flying event has on people that crowds of enthusiasts are still compelled to fight great odds to somehow retrieve their beloved Basant. They are unlikely to succeed, however.

A petition in court challenging the ‘revival’ of Basant argues that it would be against the law of the land. Some old theories based on legal, social and religious viewpoints have also been hurriedly put on display for another quick inspection by all those interested in the revival debate. The biggest factor impeding the return of the frenetic and uplifting kite-flying circus has also made an appearance.

It is a measure of its influence that enthusiasts are still compelled to fight great odds to somehow retrieve their beloved Basant.

There are reports of the killer string looming, which had caused the ouster of Basant from Lahore’s cultural calendar in the first place, to prey on new victims. A few important lives have been reported lost in string-related instances in the city. This is going to weigh heavily on the conscience of even the most ardent and adamant of Lahore’s residents, who were otherwise ready to climb up to their kothas or rooftops with basketfuls of the instruments of merriment that made the erstwhile Basant truly irresistible.

Even at peak-time, the festival demanded certain extended stretches of indifference from those who could not but let themselves go with the direction of the wind on the day. Certain precautions were necessary, and a definite few things were to be strictly avoided to prevent the experience from turning sour.

First and foremost, the average Basant enthusiast was to (at all times) stay clear of the path of kite-flying players and maestros, who were too elitist and too skilled to waste their energies in the loud expressions and entanglements that Basant so unabashedly exhibited. A player was always to be distinguished from your ordinary kite flyer.

In fact, with time, the louder the fanfare became, the deeper the proud players withdrew into their exclusive spaces, in an effort to totally shut out the utter madness surrounding them.

These players — or those among them who remain — have a grudge against the rapid popularisation of Basant, which eventually generated high business interests and led to what is often referred to as the crass commercialisation of a once very affordable event. And the charm worked, as you could very well tell by the colours that sprouted from everywhere on Basant day, attracting to a gay Lahore all kinds of souls — from those who wanted only but a small chunk in the profit from the activities, to those who were out to exploit the occasion to paint a positive image of the country.

The old players would tell you that, while they never approved of Basant, the new interest shown by businesses and those looking to spruce up the Pakistani image caused irreparable damage to a sport they were so much in love with: It hastened the demise of kite-flying in the city and in the whole of Punjab. Not that their dreams appear likely to be realised in this life, but they would rather forego the festival for the pleasure of a few quiet battles or paichs in the sky, in some remote corner, far removed from the public gaze. They have little to extract from a one-day Basant.

Another Basant ritual required the old revellers of the event to not read the headlines in the next day’s paper. These news items invariably screamed about the loss of life — as well as of property — caused by the wayward lot who, a day earlier, had taken to their roofs to proclaim a war on norms of decent entertainment. For many days, those carrying the scars of their Basant battles on their fingers would feel pangs of guilt as they were subjected to all kind of accusations by friends and family who insisted that, after all, there was a point at which the price of a habit or a passion cannot be sustained and had to be given up.

There was always this counter-theory that said you cannot simply discard an event like that. But, quite simply, not enough could be done to free the sport from the demons hidden within. Meanwhile, there were other areas where efforts to contain and minimise loss of life had borne fruit. For instance, it was once considered inevitable that a general election would lead to violence and casualties. But, with time, this trend was arrested. Now, the newspaper on the morning after the polls looked so much more… well... much more civilised compared to the past. Clearly, not enough was being done to make Basant safer as well, with the desire for greater thrills introducing the revellers to newer, deadly variants of the old kite string.

A safe Basant is an unrealistic target in so many ways. One thing is for certain, though: There can be no restoration here. If Basant ever returns to the stage, it will be as an altogether new festival, built on the ashes of the one we had before. The original died many years ago, and in it were elements that precluded it from ever being resurrected again. As compensation, you might want to name this new invention — if it ever comes about — as ‘Basant’. So strong is the case against the kite-flying festival.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2019

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