January 15, 2006
Standing high up here in the midst of shouts and laughter and thousands of brilliant colored kites in the billowy sky above its easy to feel as unfettered and free as the paper floating high above. This was the last day of the annual kite festival, the festival celebrating the end of winter and the coming of summer. A festival unique to the state of Gujurat, and much like that in the bestselling book, the Kite Runner. We had traveled by rickshaw to Jaget bhai’s house to watch kite flying from his roof and enjoy dinner with family and friendse. His house is located in the section of the city that is called the Old City; the part of the city that once was fortified in between stone gates and tall walls, the fortification no longer necessary, though the gates still stand.
Jayesh bhai led us up to the corrugated metal rooftop of this over two hundred year old home. From the vantage point of the rooftop with Hindi and pop music blaring from boom boxes, in between peals of laughter, we could view over a thousand other similar rooftops, with eager kite flyers tugging at their strings keeping each of their prized kites wafting and floating above in a seemingly effortlessly fashion. These rooftops ran across the sky line each attached at odd angles with walls jutting into roofs and various parapets leading down and around to yet another rooftop. The sky was dotted with what seemed like hundreds, maybe thousands, of twinkling, bright paper stars fluttering in the wind. And at the end of each string a kite flyer plied on the string testing how high the wind, and his/her expertise, would take each star into the brilliant blue sky.
We had climbed a wall ladder to reach the rooftop and as we arrived the next door neighbor’s called to us with smiles and motioning arms, asking us if we wanted to join them on their higher rooftop and fly some kites. The roof next door was somewhat steeply pitched but I noticed one part of it was ad jutted by a low retaining wall, meaning if one slipped and rolled down, by accident, the wall would stop you from falling any further. It might be a bit bumpy and bruising down to the wall but no real harm would happen.
Jayesh bhai grinned, looked up and asked if we wanted to join them. Vanessa, Priya and I looked at each other and Vanessa and Priya motioned that they would pass. I decided the roof climb looked safe enough, after one more look of assessment, so I climbed up, barefoot, with Jayesh bhai close behind, making sure I got to my destination without falling. At the top of the pitch of the roof a dozen hands reached down to grab mine. I took hold of one and as I pulled a leg over noticed that shards of glass were embedded in the cement/stucco. It reminded me of what I had been told — that the kite string was embedded with fine glass too, so if two kites tangled in the air one would ultimately be the victor, cutting the other kite down. In older times, that was the point to be the last kite flying but now the kites were too many and spread over such distance making this type of competition impossible. Later in the day evidence of the strings cutting power would be evident in the white bandaids wrapped around fingers of the flyers. I climbed over the wall, carefully watching where I placed my and with some help stood up among all the welcoming neighbors. Weight
The music suddenly switched from Hindi quickly to American pop music, as the owner of the radio changed the music to a more familiar tune for American ears. Here we were with complete strangers, generouslybeing offered food, music, laughter and asking us to join them in the kite flying. Priya and Vanessa within a few minutes took the plunge too and climbed up to join us. We were bombarded with smiles and questions of where were from. We pulled out our cameras, which so far in India, seemed to work wonders in forging bonds of friendship quickly. I started taking photos of the extended family members on the roof, who lived in the house below, and also of the sky filled with glittering jewels of every color imaginable. I was asked to take the reigns of a few kitesâ€™ strings while enjoying this rooftop camaraderie. Within a minute of taking the helm, each kite, which had been sailing effortlessly through the sky, would begin a precipitous fall, swirling in a constant circle, on its way to crashing. Every time this happened one of the more expert flyers would always grab the string from my hand, even when all appeared lost, and quickly with a an expert jerking movement of the string, held over the index finger, pull the kite back into the blue ether of safety. After three or four occurrences of this, I quickly offered to hold the roll of string for each flyer rather than taking the chance of sending their prize into oblivion.
The music was turned up, members of Jaget bhai’s family joined us and Gujarati style dancing on the rooftop commenced. We foreigners, all joined in trying to imitate the steps. Shortly after the dancing began, we were asked if we would like to go to the temple. Kite flying, dancing and temple going seemed like interesting juxtapositions but then I realized this was a Hindu festival after all and it was appropriate. We said sure as we quickly followed the girl, who had invited us, and were led down a narrow interior staircase, past a few bedrooms into what seemed to be the kitchen. She introduced us to her mother, her mother’s mother and other relatives, who all greeted us as if we were expected guests. A thought occurred to me in this moment and in my head I tried to picture how one would be greeted in an American household if we had just walked off their rooftop into one of the upstairs corridors, unexpectedly, and imagined this surely would not be the type of greeting we would receive. Another lesson from kind strangers, the people I was meeting along journey were once again teaching me about generosity and open heartedness. Not only did the relatives want to chat with us but they offered us tea and a tour of their house. This was the first of many houses that we trouped through that afternoon, announced quickly, or unannounced, and in every house we experienced the same type of wonderful, inviting, open-hearted hospitality.