… in which we do some math, taste a tikka from heaven, follow some strangers into a dark basement, stage a home invasion and promptly meet a prosecutor, contemplate our sins at an ashram – and stare at the most incredible sight in the world.
KAP Jasa – kite team Slovenia was invited to the great International Kite Festival Gujarat 2023. From January 6 to January 16 we rode planes, buses, cars, rickshaws, and camels from Slovenia to Ahmedabad and all over the amazing Gujarat state of India. We found old, and made new, friends; experienced beautiful, crazy, and astonishing things; and flew kites in incredible places. Enjoy the sixth instalment in the series, and if you’d like to know what had happened before, check out Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, and Chapter 6.
“You are my mortal enemy!”
Gregor, to his mortal enemy.
So, we got back to Ahmedabad in the wee hours of January 14, after five crazy days of driving all around Gujarat in a crazy red bus with a bunch of crazy kiters – but the real craziness was yet to begin in earnest.
January 14 is a very auspicious day in India; it marks the transition of the Sun into the constellation of Capricorn – or makara – and it’s generally considered to be the end of Winter. Makar Sankranti as it is known in most of India is a very important holiday, unusually dedicated to a solar deity (Surya); the festivities are colourful and fun, people are singing and dancing, there are bonfires and fireworks and feasts …
… and kites.
Hundreds of kites. Thousands of them. Especially in Gujarat – where the holiday is called Uttarayan – and especially in Ahmedabad.
It’s all about perspective. To understand the relationship people of Gujarat and of Ahmedabad have with their little paper kites they call patangs, and what’s going on during Uttarayan, you need some perspective.
“Let’s say that one half of the people here fly kites …”
“It’s more than that.”
“I know – let’s just say half, for now.”
“And let’s say that on Uttarayan each takes five patangs to the sky.”
“Oh, it’s wayyy more than that.”
“Now do the math.”
“Oh, that’s easy – oh! Oh … my … god …”
Ahmedabad – our beloved Amdavad – could be the largest city you’ve never heard about. As Wikipedia dryly states, it is the fifth most populous city in India, and the seventh largest urban agglomeration on the subcontinent. The 2011 census counted 5.570,585 people living in the Heritage City of India. We can’t be much off if we say there are 6 millions of Amdavadis today.
Now you do the math.
The organisers took us to the old Ahmedabad, the heart of the city and (deservedly) a UNESCO World Heritage site. The intricate, and at first sight chaotic, woodwork on old (really old) buildings was reflecting the intricate chaos below …
Our destination was the sky: the crowded sky of Ahmedabad, where the greatest battle of them all was heating up.
On Uttarayan everyone (everyone!) goes up on the flat roofs of the Heritage City, sets their patangs, rolls out the manjha, and starts kite fighting. The goal is simple: guide your little paper fighter so that your manjha cuts their kite line and their patang ingloriously falls from the sky. When one succeeds, one (and everyone around him) must roar: “Kai po che!” – it’s the law.
As everyone – or at least half of them, as the math says – is doing it, patangs literally rain down from the sky, and so do razor-sharp kite lines, for manjha is a cotton thread covered in glue, colour, and ground glass for better friction. Yes, it’s dangerous.
As we climbed up the four or five floors to the terrace, it was at eleven o’clock in the morning and the party was in full swing.
We did pick a couple of fights up there, and Gregor even managed to cut one (while losing some 30 of his own) … kai po che!
We still had contractual obligations to fulfill, so we had to leave for the official kite ground to fly our kites, and entertain the multitudes of kite lovers eager to see the aerial spectacle. The friendly guy who owned the building we were fighting on was a bit disappointed – but said that we simply have to come back in the afternoon. All our phones were dead, so Gregor took a piece of paper and wrote down our host’s address, email, and phone number, carefully folded the piece of paper, put it in his pocket – and we were off to the kite field …
Everything and everyone was there: the crowds, the kiters, the music and fun – everything but that thing … the thing that starts with a ‘W’.
We were trying to amuse the crowds, pulling and running and cursing under the hot sun …
… but in the end we had to concede – the wind (or, better, the lack of it) won.
We took the kites back to the hotel and got ready for round two of fighting on the roofs of Ahmedabad! We smarted up, hailed a rickshaw, and waited for Gregor to tell the driver our destination.
“Oh, bloody hell …”
When you fly kites, your pockets fill with various things, most of them being trash. So when Gregor emptied his pockets into a trashcan (we had those on the kite field, yes), he threw out everything – including the piece of paper with the address, email, and telephone number of our host.
“No worries, I remember where we were; I can find the place – and then we shall manage.”
Of course we took the rickshaw to the wrong part of the city, then walked in what we thought was the right direction, and then walked some more in another right direction.
In the labyrinth of Old Ahmedabad two guys were trying to get our attention.
“Hello, are you interested in -“
It was getting late, and we weren’t even close to where we wanted to be.
“No, sorry, we are in a bit of a hurry …”
“Come, please, come with us, we’d like to show you something,” they insisted, pointing to a dark entrance guarded by a dog – an entrance into what looked like a decrepit garage.
“Are you here to fly kites?”
“Then you must come, it’s important, please.”
Okay, if it’s really important …
They took us down and when our eyes got accustomed to the darkness, there were more people standing around – and as most unknown people look intimidating in the dark, it was getting tense in our heads.
“Please, follow me.”
We followed blindly – through the door, beneath the curtain, around the corner, into the darkness, feeling more and more tense – and suddenly we found ourselves a spacious room. In it were three groups of people working at tables illuminated by powerful lights, all dressed in white, with masks covering their faces, with gloves on their hands and caps on their heads.
It was an underground hospital.
And the patients were – birds.
The thing is that all those patangs and manjhas do maim, even kill. Every Uttarayan in Ahmedabad around 10 people die of kite flying (most from falling from the roof, and some getting their throats cut on manjhas draped across the streets), and some stories are really tragic.
But the most completely innocent victims of kite fighting are the birds.
Startled by patangs they fly into old-school manjhas and get cut. The abandoned sharp kite lines ensnare them, hurt their wings and legs, or cut their throats. And the most insidious kite line is the forbidden chinese manjha – unlike the old-school one that is basically a cotton string that breaks easily, chinese manjha is actually a thin and strong fishing line. A poor bird gets entangled into the vicious plastic wire, and with every frantic move the line tightens, eventually killing the innocent creature.
And our guys have had enough of it.
They know that stopping people from kite flying on Uttarayan is impossible, you just can’t end a tradition going back thousands of years. Chinese manjha is forbidden, but that doesn’t mean nobody is using it – the forbidden fruit and all that – the police are trying, but you know how it goes.
So this group of young and smart people decided that if they can’t cure the disease, they can alleviate the symptoms – by helping the birds directly, in an underground hospital, with teams of highly trained veterinary surgeons.
The group is called Animal Life Care charitable trust. They are truly doing a fantastic, rewarding, gods’ work (Shani is especially proud of them!) – so if you can, donate. And follow them on Facebook!
And don’t use chinese manjha – ever, ok?
We got out of the bird hospital, and suddenly remembered which darwaja – Old city gates – is the nearest one to where we needed to be. We took another rickshaw and found the place.
Or at least the general vicinity of it.
We were standing on a busy street with numerous little alleys branching off it. The place did look very familiar, but which alley was the one? Which door would lead us to the patang paradise?
Before Gregor and Ivor could react – I knew if they would start having second thoughts, I’d lose my nerve and that would be it – I dashed through one of the massive doors and ran upstairs, convinced it was the right house.
The good people on the roof were as shocked as we were; we thought damn, wrong house, and they thought damn, who are these idiots? … Then we noticed that the right terrace was actually right next to this one – we just have to climb over a wall and jump to get there! And as we started to make our move, the owners of the wrong house smiled – and asked:
“Selfie, my friend?”
See, crime does pay: our breaking and entering was successful, we got over the wall and jumped onto the right terrace. Greeted by the master of the house, his family and his friends, we got sweets and puris and pakoras and tea, and there were hundreds of patangs and miles of manjha set for hours of kite fighting. Contentedly we gazed across the flat roofs of Ahmedabad …
… and almost forgot to breathe.
It was astonishing. When we were here for the first time, before noon, the roofs were packed and the sky was crowded. But this was something completely different.
Our math was wrong. There were millions and millions and millions (and millions) of patangs flying, fighting, rising and falling. The sky above Old Ahmedabad, the Heritage City of India, was a fractal sky … at the end of every line of sight a little paper kite was dancing.
It was one of the most incredible scenes in the world …
Photos can only hint at the magnificence of it all, and a video doesn’t fare much better: the only camera that can catch the surreal spectacle is the eye, the only drive that can store it is the brain.
The party was wild, the fighting intense, the music loud … after a while we sat down tired of all the fighting and all the sights and all the honking, chatting idly about this and that, when our distinguished host casually mentioned he’s a prosecutor – the prosecutor general of Gujarat, to be precise. And we had just done a whole bunch of crimes: home invasion, breaking and entering, trespassing, lousy kite flying …
“NO!” exclaimed Gregor and jumped on his feet.
“I am a lawyer. So you are my mortal enemy!“
“We need more tea then,” said the prosecutor.
The sun had set behind the rooftops of the Heritage City of India, the night was closing in fast, and we really had to say goodbye. Dinner plans! We exchanged addresses and phone numbers and emails again, this time in an unlosable way, and we shall definitely meet again, dear Mr. Prosecutor.
Now we know where you live!
Yes, we had dinner plans, but some people in West Bengal or somewhere had wedding plans – and they won. We were therefore regretfully deprived of the homely hospitality of our friends the Rao family, and even more regretfully of the exquisite cuisine of Madame Rao (who does a lamb that should be forbidden to mere mortals), as Madame had to attend the wedding (priorities, ha).
During the terrible pandemic slump in the tourism industry, the Raos had co-created a really cool place called Urban Chowk – a cute little conglomerate of restaurants, bars, cafes, and concert venues; a place so stylish and vibrant and urban that it could be transplanted as it is straight to Ljubljana or New York – and within it a restaurant Moughal Chowk.
We got there with a rickshaw, which was not a very good idea – the place was pretty far from our hotel, and the polar air that embraced northern India was still lingering, so we disembarked shaking and shivering. But we were comforted by masterpieces of the Mughlai cuisine – the shahi tikka came straight from heaven – and with Uttej, Ephraim, and Eresh we talked and ate and ate some more and talked and laughed deep into the cold Amdavadi night.
Thus endeth Uttarayan – and with it the International Kite Festival IKF Gujarat 2023.
It was time to go. Some shopping, the obligatory visit to Sabarmati ashram (the quietest place in Ahmedabad, perfect for contemplating your sins), a parting coffee with friends – and all we had left to endure were a couple of flights back home.
A nice guy at the Vistara check-in took our extra big bag of … skis … without much ado, and we were off – first to Mumbai for a round of beers.
Oh, what a round it was …
And then suddenly – we were home.
Winter. Cold and devoid of colours. Dark spruces straining under the weight of the snow. Home.
Our baggage – at least the items that came through to Ljubljana with us – was full of Gujarat. Full of masalas nobody had ever heard about. Of bidis nobody will smoke. Of mango candies and mud mirrors and postcards and books about Gandhi, Ambedkar, Patel, Nehru. Our phones full of photos, our kites full of dirt, our brains full of memories.
How we fought with flying foxes.
How Cisca and Peter flew our kites, because our kites are their kites (and how Peter managed to fix our notorious “The Dot” rokkaku!).
How sick was Maarten. How shocked was Shahir.
How Manoj – Snake Plissken – avoided those 200 tons of onions.
How white was the salt.
How Zaher desecrated the well, how we invaded the wrong terrace, how comfortable was Saulė in her girlcave; me screaming at Ivor, Ivor riding a camel, one cow attacking Helmi, the other giving birth to a calf, Pramesh and Ephraim cutting off all the patangs they could find , all of us almost getting our heads cut off.
Memories of Anang, Aji, and Juan doing this:
And the sky of Ahmedabad doing this:
Memories of the purple sky in Rajkot, of the temple in Dwarka and of the tent in Dhordo, of the sun setting over the desert, of the fleeting glimpses of vast palm plantations through the bus window that night. The crazy red bus.
The melancholic impossibility to remember everything, the irritating inability to write down everything.
Thank you, friends.