"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Friday, January 14, 2011

Makar Sankranti

This year, on Sankranti, we were all ready at 7 in the morning, for a pooja - worship and Vedic chanting, a very peaceful start to a peaceful day. Makar Sankranti or Uttarayan always brings to mind kites and good food. But I heard from my parents that this year in Ahmedabad, many shops did not sell undhiyu. The price of vegetables has gone up so high that the margins are not high enough for the amount of work undhiyu takes. I did not realize a day would come when shops would stop selling undhiyu in the city of foodies.

The crazy preparation for kites would start two weeks before when my brother was in middle school and had just become an avid kite flier. The kites were sold in Ahmedabad in kaudi meaning sets of 20. And there were the regular square kites called "patang" and then there were the grimacing diamonds called cheel. The cheel because of their special construction and shape were meant to move swiftly and win kite battles, and cost more. Now there are many, many more varieties of kites, kite flying has become an art, of course the martial spirit of Uttarayan stays.

The dori or string was at that time best purchased from Surat, so either we had to go to special stores that got their stock from Surat, or if were lucky, someone was coming from Surat at the right time and was asked to buy us 3-5 manja, meaning spools of string. The manja either came prepared, or we had to go to the streetside service providers to get glass-dust added to the string. This gave the string the right defence against any other string that dared come against it.

The preparation does not end with the purchase of kites. One had to get going with the tying of the kinna, the tying of the kite so it is ready to fly. On the day of Uttarayan, all one had to do was to tie the string and start flying the kite, thus maximizing flying time and minimize tying time. There is a method to the kinna. And tying each kite in the days before Uttarayan gave the opportunity to check each kite for potential performance. Those that seemed weak were kept in a different stack. The mast of the kite was rubbed against the head to give it some flexibility, so that when the kite flew in the wind and was being strained by the string, the mast would bend a little if needed, without breaking.

The day before Uttarayan, massive preparation are usually on for undhiyu - a special preparation of mixed vegetables, and chikki - peanut brittles, talsaankdi  - sesame brittles and mamra laadoo - sweetened balls of puffed rice. We ate north Indian food at home, Gujarati delicacies were a treat in my childhood and were usually in addition to the main meal. In our own home, my father would get it from the market. My mother was never quite sure if she would be able to give the right Gujarati flavor to the food, it was easier to buy the small quantities we needed from the market.

And finally, from dawn to dusk - a continuing noisy celebration of Uttarayan. Except for a couple of years when it was quiet, I remember Uttarayan to always have been a very windy day. From sunrise, people would start organizing their terrace - stacks of fresh kites of different varieties, space for torn kites, the string, and also if there was more than one kite flier in the terrace, we had to get more organized. The early morning would start with people being able to fly their kites to some distance because there were fewer contenders in the sky. But by 9 in the morning, the sky was full of colorful kites of all sizes and colors.

People from one terrace would fight another, getting kites into pech - two strings against one another. The festive cries of pech laagyo chhe - we have a pech, which can be translated to "One two three four, we declare a kite war". This would be followed by a triumphant kaaadddeyyyyy - cut, by the victorious side, and then the contemptuous lapet lapet - wind up your string, to the defeated party. When the pech was too close to one's own terrace, there was terrible disappointment. Along with the kite, there was risk of losing a lot of string as well. And if the kite had just been flown and barely did it get into the sky that somebody put their string across it, there was a lot of yelling about how this person could have at least let us fly the kite a bit. There is an ethics code to the pech. The perceived code violations started a lot of fights. These fights created traditional rivalry in neighborhoods over the years. Some people would get on their terrace in the Uttarayan season, with the simple intention of cutting all kites from a particular person or terrace. Some terraces extended kite battles into wars, where the whole time was spent just cutting each other's kites.

The kites that did get cut would then glide down gracefully, and there was not honor (as in Aghanistan's Khaled Hosseini's Kite Catcher) but money in running and getting the kite. There were street sellers selling second-hand kites, knowing that many people's stock would get severely depleted pretty quickly, and then there are customers who did not buy kaudi of expensive kites but would like to buy a single second-hand one. The kinna that people would have tied so properly and carefully for weeks would add value to the second-hand kites. Little children ran after these kites through streets, and while battles raged in the sky in kite flying, battles raged on the ground on kite catching. The second-hand kites would be temptingly sold in an empty field with full view of some terraces. People looked down from the terrace and would see a beautiful kite and start negotiating. Once a price was negotiated, the person least useful for kite-flying or serving food on the terrace would get dispatched to get the kite. All through this human drama, very tasty food was being served and consumed.

Uttarayan was not festive for everyone. There were people who had cut their hands with the glass-coated string. Twenty-five years ago, there were just rubber thimbles to put on one's finger as caps, but if the string was particularly sharp, it cut through. I remember my brother's bleeding fingers. I am sure there are better ways to protect one's hands now. Glass-coated string was banned at some point in some cities. Not only was it a risk to the flier, it was also a risk to people on bicycles and scooters in regular traffic who would find a string being pulled against their hands or neck and get badly injured. There were casualties and severe injuries to people trying to catch a kite as it went past their terrace or jumping on to lower terraces and losing a foothold. Some people would get so engrossed in flying kites that they would lean back and topple over terraces - the traditional terrace walls being less than three feet tall.  Children running after kites in the streets would get run over, or cause traffic accidents. There were always horror stories to be heard and some incidents reported in the newspapers in the aftermath of Uttarayan.

The night of Uttarayan was quite peaceful when the tukkal got into the air. In the dark, when the kite had flown some distance, paper lanterns would be placed on the string, at some distance from each other, so that the soaring kite itself was not seen but one could see a row of lights in the air. Being heavy, the tukkal flying is definitely more graceful. There was no fierce movement, just a gentle swaying with the wind. It was beautiful to look out and see the tukkal in the night sky. I think sometimes that Bheeshma chose to die on Sankranti, but if he had lived in Ahmedabad, he would have waited a few days before letting go his life. Of course, he would have wanted undhiyu.

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