THE vagaries of life took me to Lahore this weekend. The sunshine was bright, the air nippy in the evening but the day bringing the promise of the baking summer that lies ahead. All around the city, the last of the season’s oranges were being sold, piled up on carts or on a rough cloth laid by the wayside.
The day I got there, the air was smoggy, stifling — no surprise, since the Punjab capital has in recent years earned the sad distinction of being one of the world’s cities with the highest levels of air pollution. But come the weekend, and as if by magic the air cleared. One could almost have viewed it as a portent.
It was, after all, the second weekend of February. It ought to have been Basant.
But Lahore is no longer what it was. Much of the greenery for which it has held fame over the centuries has been replaced by tarmac and endless, gridlocked traffic. The Chauburji is huddled into a corner, the metrobus flyovers looming overhead; Data Darbar is unrecognisable.
Lahore’s azure skies ought to have been swirling with the colours of a million kites.
To be kind, one could perhaps have forgiven the city managers all this. Their intent was no doubt laudable. Development comes at an expense, and not always are the people in charge capable of seeing the trajectory towards which their decisions are taking a city.
What the city managers, and higher authorities, cannot be forgiven for, however, is the needless truncation of the character and tradition of a city for no reason other than their own incompetence and lack of insight.
This weekend, Lahore’s azure skies ought to have been swirling with the colours of a million kites. Not all that long ago, the spring festival of Basant, traditionally held on the second weekend of February, used to bring pretty much the entire city out on the rooftops to usher in a new season of rebirth and growth. The sunniness of the skies and the mustard fields that are currently in flower used to be reflected in the ochre and citrus-gold worn on Basant; the season’s last good oranges would be the main menu. The evening would be ushered in with music and light glittering off the kites, their strings criss-crossing the heavens.
In that glitter lay the final rub.
The traditionally fierce competitiveness of the art of kite-flying came to a point where the dore started to be coated with ground glass to make it stronger, more capable of cutting other strings and thus bringing kites down. This led to numerous horrifying tragedies: deaths and injuries suffered primarily by motorcyclists that had failed to spot the loose loops of errant — deadly — string; young people getting carried away and falling from high vantage points; broken kites, reinforced with wire, short-circuiting electricity poles and transformers, causing electrocutions. The city managers tried: bylaws were passed and crackdowns issued. In the end, finally, the Supreme Court pulled the plug in 2005.
The deaths and injuries were the final nail in the coffin of Basant but, as always, there was a whole story behind it. While it is a regional festival, in Lahore in particular Basant was considered by some to have grown too big for its boots. It was deemed as having become too heavily ‘commercialised’. Perhaps the fact that this very commercial success brought considerable bounty to the city’s coffers did not have enough weightage. People dancing on the rooftops was considered ‘inappropriate’. Perhaps it was unimportant that a harmless, enthusing activity was available for youthful energies to expend themselves on, even stir the blood in old bones. And certainly, the clean-up required after Basant weekend was of significant proportions.
But these were not much talked about. In the end, it was the glittering kite strings that shouldered the blame.
It need not have been this way. There is no getting away from the fact that the inability to enforce the rules over glass-coated string was a failure of the city authorities. But, given the background resistance to ‘fun’ generally, in this land of the righteous, one is tempted to go so far as to say that not just did the haters hate, they won. The festival was cast in a hue so grim that those who weren’t in the know could not help but shake their sage heads and pronounce ‘Tsk, tsk, this will not do’.
Ever since, now and then there have been attempts to revive that magic in sanitised, cordoned-off spaces; the trader community, in particular of the Walled City and the older parts of the metropolis where the bulk of the gatherings used to be held, have called for the reinstatement of tradition.
But Basant’s back seems to have been broken. Its success lay perhaps in that very unfettered exultation of life that characterises growing things. And Lahore may perhaps never again be so enriched by this particular tradition.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2022