A Kite Fight in Kathmandu

by Chandramohan Nair

Chandramohan Nair writes about the excitement of learning to fly a kite and then moving on to his first kite fight in distant Kathmandu almost half a century ago.

Changa chait!

The piercing and excited cry, literally meaning “the kite is cut”, rang out on a pleasant September afternoon in the Indian Aid Mission compound in Kathmandu. A kite had just been cut and vanquished after a spirited aerial duel and was now drifting downwards.

Half a dozen kids in the 9-12 age group, all peering into the sky with hands cupped over their eyes, willed the kite to land safely somewhere within the compound walls. When it was clear that the kite was going to do so, there were exuberant whoops and then a mad frenzy to catch the kite before it touched the ground.

This was a spectacle repeated many times during the fortnight of Dashain – the most auspicious festival in Nepal. Dashain corresponds to the Durga Puja festival in India but goes on  for five more days beyond Vijayadashami. It takes place at a time when the earth is fresh after the monsoon rains, the skies are clear and the air is bracing. Kite flying  was an integral part of the festival and the skies would be full of kites of all shapes, sizes and colours. Some people believed that kite flying was a way of requesting the rain god Indra to bring prosperity to the kite flyers and not to send down any further rain. Others believed that it was a way of contacting and honouring ancestors or of guiding recently deceased souls to heaven.

I was part of that group of youngsters in the Aid Mission and the excitement of being part of two kite flying seasons in the mid 1960s is still fresh in my mind. Initially, we were happy just watching the kite fights and running to reclaim those that landed in our compound. Sometimes, there would be heartbreak when a gust of wind would take the kite to a neighbouring property, much to the delight of the children there. On other occasions, the kite would get entangled in the branch of a tree or come to rest on the roof of one of the buildings in our compound. The best climbers in the group would then have to undertake the sometimes hazardous exercise of retrieving the kite.

Later on, when we were able to cajole our parents into giving us some pocket money we proudly became kite flyers ourselves. The kites we could afford were small and the string ordinary and short in length, but it was always exhilarating to get the kite airborne. The take-off required perfect coordination between the person holding and releasing the kite and the flyer who would then have to deftly pull and loosen the string in turns.

By the end of my second year in Kathmandu, we had become more skilful and confident and eagerly looked forward to the thrills of getting into kite fights ourselves. We got ourselves some bigger kites, a wooden lattai to spool the string  and many lengths of  manja string which were coated with powdered glass to make them abrasive. We had to be very careful not to cut ourselves with the manja string. Mastering the lattai also took time.

On a clear Saturday afternoon we were finally ready for our first kite fight. There were no fighter kites in the vicinity when we launched our lovely green and yellow kite. We took turns with the lattai and soon, friendly winds, blowing northwards, had taken our kite to a vertiginous height. After an hour or so, it appeared that, disappointingly, there was no one willing to challenge us and we prepared to pull down our kite. 

It was then that we noticed, to our east, a majestic red kite gaining height rapidly. The speed and smoothness of the ascent indicated that the flyer was very skilful and experienced and we felt lucky that we had not got into a fight with him. The kite seemed a good distance away and we kept admiring it while pulling down our own. All of a sudden, the red kite made a sharp move towards ours. There was no mistaking the menace and intent. We had our hearts in our mouths; our first kite fight was going to be against a professional. But we were a plucky and wily bunch and always game for a fight.

With the attacker closing in, we loosened our string fast. A kite gets cut when the string is taut and the point of contact is static, so the trick was to let our kite float without losing control. We then veered our kite sharply away signalling a desire not to engage. The evasive manoeuvres continued for some time. At this point, the attacker, sensing that we might get away without engaging in combat, made a reckless attempt to intercept us. The red kite soon spun out of control. All we had to do was to bring our kite down fast and across its string to slice it clean.

A win in our first kite fight was quite unbelievable and the jubilant shouts of “Changa chait” echoed in our compound for the rest of the afternoon!

Chandramohan Nair  enrolled for a degree in English literature, ended up studying engineering, worked in the banking and technology sectors and now as a senior citizen has taken up writing. He hopes that if nothing else, it will keep his heart young and his mind open.
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