January 14th was the holiday of Makar Sankranti, also known as Kitcherie, which the men and children of Banaras celebrate by flying kites. The skies are speckled with kites of all colors, many of them trying to cut others down. In the afternoon of Kitcherie I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time on the brand-new roof of my friend’s homestay house, where I received my first kite-flying lesson.
The first time her homestay father Devanand handed me the string, the black and green kite which had been peacefully soaring in the air spun and toppled, dropping rapidly despite my wild attempts to somehow tug it back into place. Devanand grabbed the string back from me and quickly put the kite to rights.
“That’s okay,” I said, laughing along with the others at my failure. “I’ll just take pictures for now.”
I watched as the men and boys sent kites climbing into the air, or dropped them down the cut the strings of rival kites.
“Kuta hua!” (Cutting happened!) We would all yell out when a kite was successfully kite. At least I think that’s what we were yelling—I had a bit of trouble hearing the words through the cheers. “Happy Kitcherie!”
I tried to figure out what the expert kite fliers were doing, but it seemed to be an inexplicable combination of tugging the string up and down, and just holding the kite in the air. My friend and I also couldn’t figure out how the kite cutting actually worked, as each person gave us a different answer.
As the light started to go down, one of Devanand’s friends handed me the kite string again. And again, the kite plummeted.
“I’m sorry I’m sorry!” I said while he patiently tugged the kite into the air again. “I don’t know what to do!”
The man said something, and Devanand translated for us. “When the top is up, pull the string.”
I took the string and tried one last time, tugging the string in towards me when the top of the kite was up, and the kite did in fact climb. The kite starting spinning and I flinched, pulling a little wildly.
“No, no,” the kite fliers told me. “Up, top up.”
Right. Up. I watched the kite’s spin more closely, and tried to only pull the string when the top of the kite was pointing up. And, to me magically, the kite’s motion came under control, and it once again hovered fairly steadily in the sky.
I learn to live and balance in Banaras much the same way as I tried to balance kites in the sky. There are people around who make it seem so easy, from the everyday routines that I often struggle with to bigger events like proper pujas, marriages, and deaths. At times I feel like I’m completely out of control, spinning or falling and just waiting for someone else to grab the kite string out of my hands and set everything right. But occasionally the right thing clicks, and I figure out what I’m supposed to be doing—how the constant tugging in different directions is supposed to work.
When things are going well, when the top is up, that’s when you pull hard, work hard, to keep flying higher. But what happens when the top is down? I asked my kite-flying teachers this when the issue came up, and one demonstrated by twitching the string sideways, causing the kite to spin once more, then again pulled on the kite when the top was up.
Just sitting in the sky isn’t enough. I have to be willing to occasionally lose control, to spin, in order to straighten up and fly higher.