The annals of folly

Published: February 6, 2012

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. The writer can be reached at http://twitter.com/#!/laalshah. The views presented in the article above are not those of his firm.

By most accounts, recorded history goes back about six thousand years. During that time, innumerable scribes have written about innumerable kings and leaders. And while what survives to us is mostly the great deeds of those kings and leaders, there is also more than enough evidence to show that humans have a singular talent for acting stupidly, particularly in matters of governance.

In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman makes the argument that mankind “makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. As evidence for her contention, Tuchman examines four case studies — the Trojans’ acceptance of a giant wooden horse without checking to see what it contained; the Renaissance Popes whose extravagance and venality triggered the Reformation; the pig-headedness of the British and how it caused the loss of the American colonies; and finally, America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Before I present Pakistan’s contribution to these illustrious annals, it is worth noting that Tuchman’s definition of folly is fairly precise. In fact, she lays down three criteria that an act has to meet in order to be described as ‘folly’.

The first criterion, self-evidently, is that the act in question has to be dumb, or in politer language, “clearly contrary to the self-interest of the organisation or group which carries out the act.”

The second criterion is that the act has to happen over a period of time and be conducted by a number of people, so that isolated instances of nuttiness — both collective and individual — are excluded.

The third and final criterion is that the policy followed should have been identified even at the relevant time as folly; or in other words, hindsight doesn’t count.

You might ask why I am writing of such depressing matters on a beautiful February morning.

The answer is that it is precisely because of the weather that I am being so forcibly reminded of the folly of our rulers. As I look out of my window, I can see a clear blue sky. What I cannot see are any kites.

I grew up in Lahore. And like any other boy growing up in Lahore, one of my favourite memories is of flying kites. As I grew older, what was once just a pastime for idle boys became big business. Basant became an international festival marked by fashion shows, concerts, culinary extravaganzas and all types of celebrations. Indians streamed across the border every year for the festival as did well-heeled desis living in the Gulf.

The very rise of Basant though contained the seeds of its destruction. As participation in the festival began to rise, so too did deaths from accidents related to it. Children fell off rooftops while chasing kites; others got hit by cars. A number of motorcyclists got injured by kite string and some even died.

Petitions challenging the legality of Basant (or, to quote one agitated ideologue, “the kites of blasphemy”) had provided annual fodder for judges of the Lahore High Court for many years. In 2005 though, the judges took a far stronger view of the proceedings, which position was in turn upheld by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s intervention was then followed by a formal ban imposed by the Punjab legislature, which is in place till today.

In my view, the ban on Basant is stupidity of historic proportions. I concede that there are innocent people who lose their lives as a consequence of it. But we make the same choice between economic activity and terrible consequences every single day. Guido Calabresi once described this paradox as the “gift of the evil deity”, a phrase which he illustrated by pointing out that in most advanced countries, cars are one of the leading causes of death. Framed in the abstract, most people have no hesitation in saying that they would choose life over technological convenience. But ask people to live without cars or electricity and suddenly the decision becomes more complicated.

Basant not only provided seasonal employment to thousands but also greatly helped the economy of Lahore, a point completely missed by the morons who talk of frivolous consumption. Let’s get one thing straight: consumption of domestically produced goods can never be frivolous. Yes, I bought kites but the kite-maker bought bread and sent his child to school.

Finally, Basant was a rare ray of sunshine in the lives of thousands. From the rich to the poor, it was the one time when every Lahori with access to a rooftop — and not just those fortunate enough to have bootleggers on speed-dial — could enjoy himself. Along with the Rafi Peer music festivals, now also dead, Basant was one of the few things we all could boast about.

Not having Basant makes us all poorer. And I don’t just mean that in money terms.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2012.

 

Reader Comments (22)

  • Cynical
    Feb 6, 2012 - 11:08PM

    I am not a student of history, but this Basant thing to me smells ‘hindu’.Am I wrong?

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  • John B
    Feb 6, 2012 - 11:21PM

    Yep, the joy of chasing kites is as good as heading down hill in a frigid cold winter sled with no helmet or ear muffs and the pride of success in both events is beyond measure, and only an youth can feel, and understand.

    Reminds me of a line in Tagore’s poetry “The Paper Boat” where the boy complains of the rain that spoils his happiness in sending a paper boat on the rain water that runs in front of his little house.

    ” Determined to spoil my happiness, all its anger was against me”

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  • Parvez
    Feb 6, 2012 - 11:34PM

    You missed out the point that authorities normally take the ‘ easy way out’ when finding a solution and I agree with you their banning Basant was stupid. The solution was to ban the use of the powdered glass mixture on the kite string which could fatally cut a person and restrict kite flying to large open parks or fields – banning it completely was not the answer.

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  • x
    Feb 6, 2012 - 11:34PM

    Banning basant, banning concerts, our decision makers seem to be on a spree to ban everything as a one stop solution to all problems, in the process, destroying all forms of entertainment as well as sources of revenue.
    I wish they would ban dengue, crime, honour killings, etc which claim so many lives.

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  • yousaf
    Feb 6, 2012 - 11:42PM

    @Author..Your analogy of car accidents with basant accidents is absurd as kite flying does no good to humanity except a useless whiling away of time which causes one man’s death for the other to enjoy which no amount of money earned by kite makers can justify.In case you feel nostalgic about such basant that kills innocent children and young bread earners of a family you may go somewhere away from the city and have the pleasure of kite flying.btw those who banned kite flying are but humans with a heartRecommend

  • waqar
    Feb 7, 2012 - 2:15AM

    @yousaf – it would have been better that they had put in place a series of protective measures for kite flying in basant.. restricting it to open spaces… the use of “legal” materials to manufacture the string and so on and so forth. Basant was the glory of Lahore.

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  • Pro Bono Publico
    Feb 7, 2012 - 4:56AM

    @waqar:
    Why not a designated area in say Iqbal Park in Lahore for kite flying?

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  • frank
    Feb 7, 2012 - 5:32AM

    cynical

    I am not a student of history, but
    this Basant thing to me smells
    ‘hindu’.Am I wrong?

    Basant celebrates the arrival of spring in the Punjab. It has always been celebrated with greater fervour in Muslim majority Punjab than Hindu majority countries of South Asia. Basant has nothing to do with religion at all.

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  • Chimera
    Feb 7, 2012 - 6:08AM

    @Cynical:

    You are right on target. Anything that is happy, joyous and brings out the best in people has to be Hindu!

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  • Homa
    Feb 7, 2012 - 11:16AM

    Basant comes from sanskrit vasant/vasanta. It is an ancient hindu festival celebrating spring. It is also called in india basant panchami, makar sankranti, bihu etc.

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  • Homa
    Feb 7, 2012 - 11:17AM

    Hindu punjabis and seraikis wear yellow on this day.

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  • sidjeen
    Feb 7, 2012 - 12:58PM

    in the previous decade i used to feel envy of the people of Lahore celebrating basant while here we only had drone attacks and bombs and Taliban. i cannot think how an occasion that brought joy to so many people can be banned the authorities should realize that not every one have the money to go abroad for vacations and refreshment some of us can only afford to travel inside pakistan and lahore is such a fine place to go to celebrate the arrival of spring.

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  • Parvez
    Feb 7, 2012 - 1:48PM

    @Cynical: The Hindu’s with their centuries old culture along with others may have been one of the first to appreciate and celebrate the arrival of Spring, others followed. It is a celebration, a day of joy, thanksgiving for natures bounty. Why must you distort it by this remark made in poor taste.

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  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Feb 7, 2012 - 1:55PM

    @Cynical:

    I am not a student of history, but
    this Basant thing to me smells
    ‘hindu’.Am I wrong?

    I am not aware of the word basant/vasantha being in Arabic.
    Hope this answers your question;-)

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  • Saleem
    Feb 7, 2012 - 6:12PM

    Dear author, tell me which country allows kite flying using razor sharp string which has cut the throats of many or using metal string tripping up electricity wires and transformers?

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  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Feb 7, 2012 - 7:21PM

    @frank:

    Basant celebrates the arrival of
    spring in the Punjab. It has always
    been celebrated with greater fervour
    in Muslim majority Punjab than Hindu
    majority countries of South Asia.
    Basant has nothing to do with religion
    at all.

    Actually,

    Vasanta Panchami (Sanskrit: वसन्त पञ्चमी), an Indian festival celebrated every year on the fifth day (Panchami) of the Hindu month Magh (January–February), the first day of spring.

    As you can see, it’s quite Hindu in origin.
    And yes, spring arrives in rest of India too.

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  • frank
    Feb 8, 2012 - 4:36AM

    There is nothing in what you quote that contradicts my post. Yes, other South Asian nations apart from Punjabis celebrate Spring but then so do nations in other parts of the world. The point is that Basant is celebrated with greater fervour in Punjab and in its own peculiar manner.

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  • mubashrah raza
    Feb 8, 2012 - 9:48AM

    @Cynical:
    even if it does so what? we all enjoyed the festival. whats wrong with that.

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  • shehryar salamat
    Feb 9, 2012 - 12:44AM

    lesco replacing short circuited transformers, miles of electric cables, and pha cleaning up the city of discarded strings and kites from trees, and motorcyclists fearing for their lives on the roads do make a compelling counterargument. Though accidents and deaths can, of course, be  minimized by raising social awareness… It’s debatable how effective these campaigns can be when the city is swept by hysteria.

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  • Arindom
    Feb 9, 2012 - 1:45AM

    In summary;
    FUN & FROLIC = HINDU
    Hence; in Pakistan, ban all fun and frolic!!!

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  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan
    Feb 9, 2012 - 7:43PM

    In Indian punjab it is wonderful to enjoy basant and kite flying….no kata :) it is a simple , honest festival which should not be banned. Let my Punjabi praji’s and paina enjoy them there too. Sat Sri akal, salam, peace

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  • M.Asif
    Feb 14, 2012 - 12:11PM

    @Cynical:
    yes you are absolutely wrong.

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