“Hum Gujarati log mast log hai,” the rickshaw driver merrily informed us in Hindi liberally touched with Gujarati accent. He was smiling away and looked at me in the mirror to gauge my reaction. We had seen enough evidence of the Gujarati joie de vivre already, on the streets and elsewhere to take him at face value.
“I know,” I replied, “People here are generally joyous and easy going.” My answer pleased him as I knew it would. It is one thing to believe it yourself and quite another to have a visitor validate it. Rickshaw drivers are more likely than not tourists’ first contact with the place. But, I had resisted adding “with the exception of rickshaw drivers here, some of whom are as suspect in their dealings as those elsewhere”.
Pointing to crowds outside shops selling kites, and spools for kite thread, waving his hand about clusters of kite string (manja if it’s laced with ground glass bound by adhesives) makers roadside, he continued, “Uttarayan is one festival equally enjoyed by the rich and the poor alike. It brings all sections of the society together. People fly kites all day long.”
I had little doubt about his assertion, having walked the streets dodging enthusiastic manja makers dyeing kite string with bright colours using a mix of colours and ground glass, the latter to sharpen kite thread for use in kite fights in the skies over Ahmedabad.
I was warming to this portly Gujju in white merrily breezing us through traffic as we approached the stretch that swung left and drew parallel to the Sabarmati in Khanpur area of the old city. It’s January. We had sallied into Ahmedabad in time for the International Kite Festival held on the banks of the Sabarmati to coincide with Uttarayan, the day the Sun embarks on its northerly course, a day nearly all of Gujarat turns out to fly kites.
As January approaches memories of time spent on the streets of Ahmedabad break surface once again. I haven’t been around Gujarat much, surely not enough to form informed opinions of
Gujarat or Gujaratis. However, January in Gujarat when the state prepares to celebrate Uttarayan is
as good a time as any to be on the streets as any.
In the days leading up to Uttarayan, the streets are awash with activity centred around kites – kite making, making kite thread, dyeing kite thread, drying them street side. Streets in localities known for business in kites transform into a gathering of creators and consumers, both bound by an old tradition and marked by friendly banter that includes old fashioned bargaining and cajoling.
Patang Udao, Mauj Manao turns into a byword come January, come Uttarayan.
Spindles for kite thread on sale in a roadside shop. Along any given stretch of road dealing with kites, outlets and kite thread makers complement one another.
Buy a spindle, hand it over to the manja maker roadside, collect it after he has wrapped kite manja around it, head over to an adjoining outlet, buy some kites, and head back home for an evening of kite flying on the terrace with your neighbours.
An elderly Muslim man runs his padded fingers along kite string, applying a fine paste of ground glass mixed with adhesives made from rice paste among other things.
More likely than not, manja makers are Muslims from lower economic strata. The days leading up to Uttarayan open up earning opportunities.
Drying manja in the late afternoon sun. Riding along the street they appear like dollops placed streetside to entice passersby.
The youth sitting by the handle will spin it slowly to ensure the Sun wraps around the thread evenly. The Sun was warm, comforting laying its friendly hand on my shoulder and warming my neck to just the right degree.
He had ridden up to the manja maker and waited patiently for his lot of kite string to be completed, and wound on the spindle he had carried along.
“The kite string has to survive atleast 6-7 kite fights else I don’t consider it good quality,” he told me.