January 9, 2014

The Season of Kites: A Kite Falling

Flying High

Often, while writing at my desk, my eyes straying towards my six month old kite painting sitting there, I have begun to sense that it has been waiting to speak to me for some time. The painting itself is quite simple: a cut, stringless fuschia-bodied and yellow and turquoise ear and tailed kite flying/suspended in a monotone blue sky above a tree-top full of paper pieces of kite. I didn't paint the kite; I instead glued a miniature paper kite from a bagful that I bought from a stall in New Delhi onto the canvas. The pieces of kite in the tree too are from one half of another paper-kite that I mutilated in order to adorn my painting. I cannot recall what it is that I did with the other half: it presumably sits alongside the other intact paper kites, marooned and wingless. I call the tree in my painting kite tree.

 Late last January, while visiting Jaipur for a literature festival, I used to see these kite-studded trees wherever I went. I recognized the kite remnants as leftovers from the mid-January festival of Basant when Jaipur ritually climbed up to the flat-topped house roofs and participated in kite-flying contests. Those kite-trees still retained that spirit of festivity and celebration and seemed unwilling to relinquish this unseasonal cargo of theirs, this blossoming of mutated rainbow-hued flowers. These kite-trees figure amongst my most memorable memories of that particular January in Jaipur: translucent blue glass morning skies, melted butter sunlight, and those happy, fecund trees.

It was sometime ago when I came across an article referring to the kite-eating trees in the comic strip, Peanuts; those trees sounded carnivorous, a pirhana-like sounding avatar of the scarlet-faced Venus flytrap. My Jaipur kite-trees and the one in my painting were not hungry: they rather accepted the kite fragments into their fold with outstretched arms, as that of a mother, affectionately feeding the kites' illusion that they were still aloft. It was akin to snowflakes starring a black coat, allowed to briefly retain their original and inherent individuality, rather than falling and congealing into the faceless floor of snow. You would not demote beauty into detritus by mistaking those snowflakes for dandruff; how could you then mutilate maternity into Medea by conflating those kite-fragments as objects of consumption?

 I am focusing on the tree although I know that it is the kite in the painting which seeks to say something to me. Let us train our gaze towards it. My kite appears an Icarus, his feather and wax wings silhouetted against the sun, supremely confident in this moment of aerial triumph. And yet, if you peer more closely, my kite is not as much airborne as it is falling and in possession of the knowledge that it will ultimately bypass the cushioned security of the tree. My kite is falling. My painting is a photograph of a kite falling. And I am sitting here and watching it fall, unable to do anything. 

 When kites fall in my part of India, telephone, electricity and barbed wires often disrupt their descent to earth; it is common to see kites ensnared in knots of wires, gradually turning into shish-kebabs of fried paper and wood over time. Otherwise, they fall flat on their faces and are instantly submerged in anonymity, becoming as non-descript as the nearby discarded wastepaper. At their luckiest, the kites will glide down onto lawns of house gardens; their prospective owners, the neighborhood boys will then cluster around the main entrance gate, unguently calling out to whomever they see to fetch the kites; sometimes, people of the house oblige, sometimes, they don't. The boys immediately squabble if and when the kite comes into their possession, fiercely arguing over who is legitimately entitled to acquiring this prized trophy of a furiously fought sky-duel.

Spot the Kite

I saw a kite fall this July. I was standing outside in my uncle's garden, contemplating whether to write in my journal or finish reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The air was sepia-colored, the clouds melted burnished brass, and the atmosphere thrummed with the kind of anticipation akin to that before a theatre performance. I finally sat down on a three-decade old viridian green metal bench, having abandoned both the book and journal for gazing hypnotically up into the blanched pink evening sky. There were kites too in the air: black rhombuses hovering parallel to each other, their strings pencil lines across the firmament. A baby cried; the music store next to the bakery across the road was playing a popular Hindi film song from four summers ago, instantly transplanting me to a similar evening then, redolent of the familiar odor of unwatered dust, growth, and the charged, electric finale to a deadening, hot, dull day. It was as if today had never existed and yesterday was static. I found myself holding my breath, afraid that if I exhaled I would never recover what I had just so serendipitously discovered. 

The dog heard it fall before I did. It started barking and bulleted from the house and onto the white marble verandah. The baby had stopped crying and I saw that a kite had fallen amid the stumps of the recently amputated lime tree. In the diminishing dusk light, the kite was pale-colored and sickly and I instinctively knew that no one would come to fetch and fight for it. It was destined to remain in that armless embrace until the sun and monsoon rain bleached and sheared it away into becoming a skeleton once more, returning it into the form from which it had originally grown. It had fallen and how: an ignominous descent for it remained in the limbo of falling and yet not having actually parachuted to the ground. It was a kite ghost: never to be trampled to mutilation, never to be worshipped as a trophy, and never to glamorously electrocute itself in dramatic pyrotechnics on electric cables. I wished then I could say that it was a beautiful sight, the fallen kite and the newly-turned kite tree. I could not, though, no matter how much I tried to photoshop tragedy: the kite was now merely a flat diamond shaped piece of paper and the tree, reduced and atrophied.

 I think I am beginning to understand what the kite in my painting is speaking about to me and why. It is asking me where it is falling. You are just part of a painting though, I should respond, there are no brackets to your story; the painting is the story in itself and like every other spectator, I too wonder where the kite is falling. This is the way I should respond. But I cannot. What is the use of starting to narrate a story that you cannot complete? Does not the story-teller have the right to know the ending of his story considering he is its very first audience? I am the story-teller in this case and I must find out where the kite falls. Unlike Daedalus, I could not warn the kite of the dangers inherent in the pleasure of flight; unlike Daedalus, though, I can surely narrate it the story of its fall. 



Come January and I reflect upon the many wonderful winter trips I have taken to Rajasthan during this month in the past. What with the festival of Makar Sankranti coming up, which marks the arrival of spring and witnesses many an iridescent kite dotting the sky then in Rajasthan and Gujarat, for example, I was reminded of this piece which I wrote several years ago. It was interesting to revisit it, both in terms of nostalgia as well as the writer that I was and the literary and stylistic sensibilities influencing me then.

P.S I unfortunately do not have a picture of the painting I write about in the essay. I still have these paper-kites though and some of which I have used to adorn my home, which I have depicted in this post. However, what to do with the remaining kites? Perhaps, it is time for another painting.

This essay originally appeared in Blood Lotus literary journal's Issue 8, March 2008; read it here

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