Having suffered a personal loss a few months earlier, I was still a depressed young man when an audit assignment sent me to Lahore many years ago. There I was, hundreds of miles away from home, mildly cherishing the independence but not really having much time to enjoy it.
Our days were spent sifting though files, and our nights were spent crunching numbers. As late winters in Lahore are, the foggy dawns and dusks were all grey and left little to be cheerful about. It was a chilly Sunday afternoon in early February when we were at the hotel sifting through yet more files and crunching yet more numbers that I called up a client officer to ask for some information. The friendly fellow thought I was joking with him! How could anyone in Lahore be working on a Sunday? And not just any Sunday, but a Sunday during Basant!
Despite my repeated assurances he refused to believe that we were working and actually wanted the data, and refused to provide any. On the contrary, he told me to dress up as he was coming to pick me up. I didn’t really take him seriously and dove back into work, all of which was due to be delivered to my senior that very night. Half an hour later, I got a call from reception that a friend was there to see me. Surprised, I left for the lobby and found my Lahori colleague waiting for me. Dressed in a shalwar kameez, and sporting a smile as wide as the Shalimar gardens, he gave me a bear hug and ordered me to get dressed. Then he changed his mind, saying, “Nah, the jeans and T-shirt are fine, just throw on a jacket…we’re already late.” With no idea what we were getting late for, I meekly obeyed and followed him out.
During the past few days I had seen tiny paper kites embellish shop windows and regular-sized kites pasted to car wind screens. “Patangbaz Sajna” by Fareiha Pervez had become the anthem for Lahore and glimpses of all this during our short trips to various offices had intrigued me.
As a first time visitor to Lahore, I didn’t have an inkling what all the fuss was about, and was more worried about missing my deadline. “Mitti Pao, ji,” he said with disdain as he assured me he’d help me tomorrow. Hesitantly I shrugged off any fears about meeting deadlines and, like Neo in the Matrix, decided to take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole went.
We made off in his car to his home located near old Lahore. The scenes on the street were unbelievable. I had never seen half as many kites in my entire life as were on display in the sky. Everybody seemed to be carrying them, and everyone appeared to be genuinely happy.
People were dressed in bright colors and I suddenly realized that my everyday attire was a rather drab spot in this sea of colors. He parked his car in a narrow bricked lane and pushed open the unlocked wooden door of his house.
I stood outside waiting for my cue when he, annoyed at my formalities, pulled me inside without further ado. It was as if I had been suddenly dragged onto the stage of a musical play about someone’s mehndi which was probably being held on an Eid day in the middle of a street parade!
There was a open-air verandah in the middle of the house, bordered by corridors and rooms. Children were running around shouting, kites in hand. Laughing young girls and middle-aged ladies bustled in and out of the corner kitchen from which the most wonderful aromas were wafting out. A few old “babajees” were enjoying a game of chess and the joyous mood was omnipresent and infectious.
Everyone seemed to be in a hurry to finish off the tasks at hand and go up the steep flight of stairs in a corner. Not wanting to appear nosy, I hesitantly looked upwards. There was clearly some serious commotion going on, and in between the tangle of limbs and faces, I caught a glimpse of a sky filled with innumerable kites of various colors and shapes dancing in the blue, which was streaked with the gossamer white of passing clouds. The kites looked like fishes swimming in the sea and every once in a while a kite with a “tail” would cascade by like a multi-colored eel. Perfectly framed by the corridors, the scene appeared like a mesmerizing painting — one full of life. Gone was my shyness and I was staring at the sky with a broad smile across my face.
“This is Bayjee”, my friend said, breaking me out of my reverie. I looked down at an graceful old lady sitting on a takht. I crouched on one knee, as she extended her hand and placed it on my head, giving her my blessings. I may have been wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but suddenly I felt like a Knighthood had been bestowed on me. Her time-worn eyes and the warmth of her wrinkled smile reminded me of my “Nani” back home. She invited me to go upstairs to the “kotha” and come back after dinner for a chit chat.
As we ascended the stairs, the beats of bhangra music became clearer, competing against amid shouts of “bo Kata” and “Hurrrr!!” and the joyous din of horns blowing and whistles piercing and drums booming . The rooftop was a frenzy of colors, deafening sounds, and the enticing aromas of barbequed food being prepared, Lahori-style. The evening was a blur of laughter and pats on the back and hugs that accompanied every successful “paicha.”
This was life and Lahore at its best, this is the basant that was — before the ‘chemical’ strings arrived, before the deadly metal wires began to slit throats and land on power lines.
This was a time when Basant was an affair where family and friends used to gather not only from Lahore but nearby towns as well, and depressed guests such as myself were invited, welcomed and included in the festivities.
So much time has passed since. Since that magical day, I have been told that my attending the event puts my religion into question, or that it announces my political leanings. It pains me how the drums and whistles, fuelled by corporate marketing budgets and ill-gotten wealth morphed into displays of elaborate fireworks and aerial firings, and how family get-to-gathers turned into commercial concerts and exclusive parties that in turn mutated into mujras and alcohol-fueled parties.
Then the radical brigade stepped up, calling basant a heretical affair. The liberal elite went overboard in their counter-reaction, and turned their patronisation of Basant into a show of defiance. Then, of course, came security threats and the looming spectre of militancy. And then basant died.
But the soul of basant had already been lost. It was never something that needed the patronage of powerful lobbies or corporate sponsors and certainly never deserved the condemnation of the religious right. It was a festival of the people, by the people and for the people. Celebrating basant, even in the re-packaged form of “Jashan-e-Baharan”, now stands officially banned in Lahore for the past few years. Yet I still carry in my heart a deep love and gratitude, and will always remember Bayjee’s wizened eyes, and the touch of the hand which breathed a fresh warmth into my soul on that long-gone Basant day so many decades ago.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 19th, 2012.
More in Magazine10 things I hate about graduating