It’s Jamghat and Eid at the same time here in the skies above Old Lucknow. Ever since the lockdown, colourful kites have been soaring and swirling in the clear blue firmament overhead. The pandemic has closed off all outdoor activities, but aerial dogfights between these paper jets have occupied the spaces in the sky above the offices, shops, industries, hotels and canteens that have fallen silently asleep.
Sure, many youngsters are still playing Ludo, indoors and out of sight, but it is in kite-flying from their wide-open or cluttered terraces that the city’s residents are flourishing. Flying kites is the new PUBG for a bored generation that is desperate for—what else?—timepass. In these days of physical distancing, kites are their platform, their route to interact with others who are caught in the same situation.
When children grab the strings of a fallen kite, they whoop with joy. The losing side threatens and abuses them in desperate attempts to salvage their prized possession. Such commotions are to be expected as a million kite-matches buzz overhead. Many competitors can see one another, across rooftops. They exchange words and gestures during and after their contests.
In some more gentle matches, the competitors are invisible to one another, but the breeze still carries their cuss words and curses—as it does their appreciation and praise of particularly skilled rivals. Some of the joys of the older days seem to have come rushing back with the lockdown, as quick hands and timely leaps replace the paranoic obsession with steering clear of Covid-19.
Kite flyers, when they lose a fight, seek redemption in flying another one. In this sport you are supposed to keep fighting until your armour—your kites, strings, and audience of friends, neighbours and family—can resist the onslaught. On some avid kite-flyers, even calls to prayers and admonishing parents have no effect as they spend their days on their roof, contesting away to glory or defeat.
The lockdown did not come in the way of Lucknow’s kite-flyers, for even those who had quit flying years ago or are too old for its rigours often kept their kites and threads stored in nooks and crannies at home—behind almirahs, over high shelves (called machaans), hidden away from children. But now the quarantine has been lifted for kites.
When Lucknow realised that the lockdown is not going to be a short flirtation but a long-drawn affair, they searched for distractions. Some are playing online Ludo, others are literally on PUBG. But it is the kite shops that most people have made a beeline for—the skyline is proof of this. The kite-sellers in the city’s main markets and large streets may be closed but the dusty nondescript stores around the corners and gullies have found surging local demand—a kite-farmer’s market has been born.
But there is no new raw material arriving at these shops. It’s a surprise that supplies lasted even this long, to tide people over two weeks of kite-flying. Many big kite flyers own collections, which they are possibly passing around now. Kite makers who had stocked up on raw materials are still making some at home, though they are sure to run out as goods movement has come to a sudden and grinding halt. When that happens, the young ones will have nothing falling from the sky to grab.
The secret truth is that a kite does not die when it loses a fight. It simply embarks on another journey. Someone’s lost kite becomes a prized possession of the one who wins it, and the kite lives to see another flight.
Imagine the kite’s journey; it flies high and proud with the wind, then falls like a leaf off a banyan tree. Then, grabbed by a stranger, it is given new threads and repaired with a patchwork of paper glued on with cooked rice paste. Now it is ready to fly again, perhaps even higher, as it thrills in the new lease of life.
Of course, a kite is doomed to fail at some point, but not before it teaches us to not lose hope when we are defeated.
Kite-flyers hone and sharpen their survival skills over time. The best among them master a technique to grab a kite before it falls to the earth, injuring its wooden spine, and ending up permanently disabled. Kite-makers call this skill “liptana”. It involves criss-crossing kite string to yank a stranger’s kite towards oneself. But these maestros also rob us of the joy of watching little ones chase after dropping kites.
The question many are asking is if these lockdown-era kites could be carriers of the Novel Coronavirus, which causes the dreaded Covid-19 disease. The virus can remain active on surfaces for anything from two hours to nine days, depending upon whom you are listening to. These days, people are bathing their vegetable supplies in soapy water. Many are not reading newspapers, because they fear that between the folds of its paper are strands of the deadly virus. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine says that the Novel Coronavirus “does not last on cardboard after 24 hours, and lasts even less on newsprint, which is far more porous than cardboard”.
A more recent study by the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong has found that ARS-CoV-2 does not survive on print or tissue paper for more than three hours. Besides, different studies point out that the virus responds differently depending on changing temperature and surfaces.
Now, can we apply these findings to kites? Like newspapers, kite paper is also porous. But Kites face much higher temperatures—which is apparently not conducive to the growth of the Novel Coronavirus—than newspapers. Also, people use plastic tape, old newspapers and glue made of cooked rice to repair kites. They also have wooden spines.
The characteristics of all kinds of paper may be very similar, but the journey of a kite is nothing like the journey of a newspaper or cardboard box. Kites go from their maker to a seller and then to buyers. A kite, in a matter of hours, passes from owner to owner. People sweat when flying kites, and wipe their faces with their bare hands while they fly kites together on rooftops.
The kite string, known as saddi, is made of cotton coated with chemicals, including, at times, a casual splash or two of saliva to keep it all together. So-called Chinese manjha (which means kite string) is made from plastic, iron and abrasive substances. This type of string is officially banned, but still in use. Of course, kites made from thin plastic are the ones kids enjoy the most.
Some of this would make medical experts, who are preaching, cajoling and scolding people into following physical distancing norms, sit up in alarm.
They need not worry. Ludo, the reigning king of board games, and the mobile phone, are also potential violators of the medical ideal on physical distancing. Flying kites should be seen as a sport that has helped the young from all walks of life spend these days and nights of isolation and worry in peace and enjoyment.
No doubt kite sellers and kite makers are taking a risk, but they are no different from other risk-takers: the barbers, meat-sellers, tobacco and paan-sellers, grocers, medicine suppliers, and so many others. Recently, two police officials were injured by stray manjha-strings, a sharp thread that is known to be dangerous at times. Now there are rumours that the police plan to use drones to restrict the flying of kites. That the kites would be sent back into quarantine, physical distancing and self-isolation.
One could argue that people engaged in kite selling when there is a pandemic out and about are endangering others. But can we forget that kite makers and kite sellers are among the smallest businesses? When this lockdown was announced, the thoughts of kite makers rushed immediately to how they are going to survive the coming weeks.
Naturally, before people resort to seeking aid or charity, they try to survive independently. True, many organisations and individuals are making efforts to reach essential supplies to the needy, but they are falling short. Besides, the administration has not really won the complete trust of citizens. That also hinders their ability to keep kite flying in check. Besides, the police are still missing in many parts of the city. Lucknow, in general, is not emerging as a model or hub of physical distancing.
Experts and organisations that are keeping a record of and studying Covid-19 victims can add a column in their surveys, enquiring whether the people they test for the virus had any history of flying kites.
Aoun Hasan is from Lucknow and has a background in visual communication and human rights. He photographs, writes, and makes videos. The views are personal.