Last night at 10:00 PM, I had caught the Gujarat Mail from Dadar (Mumbai). It’s now 6:00 AM and the train has reached The Manchester of India – Ahmedabad, slowing down as it approaches the railway station. As I look out of the train window and shut my travel log, I expect to see the tall smokestacks associated with big textile mills and industries.
As I look out of the puny three-wheeler autorickshaw speeding away from the railway station, I espy a lot of Mughal architecture – minarets, big and small, right near the railway station; interesting fort gates looming tall through which we ride; beautiful mosques et al – my first impression being that this surely must be a city with a lot of Mughal history, now transformed into a terribly crowded commercial hub. The driver, I must say, was either an ex-Ferrari driver or was imagining a cyclone following him. With both his hands gripped on the steering to weave-brake-zoom and honk, his foot would jut out first one way and then the other. It was only later when I saw other auto-drivers doing the same at road-intersections, that I deciphered that he wasn’t loosing his balance but merely using his foot to signal a turn!
As we crossed one of the bridges spanning the Sabarmati River, an interesting iron structure, we entered onto wide roads and a more disciplined traffic. My roving eyes could not help noticing the high frequency of teenaged girls riding sleek scooters among the crowded traffic, most of them riding double!
The rickshaw finally deposits me to the required address, after a 30-minute ride. Mr. and Mrs. Shah give me a warm welcome and call out to their son and daughter-in-law who along with the building’s neighbours can be heard whooping and shouting on the terrace – and the big day (Uttrayan) is tomorrow!
It’s now evening and Ankit (Shah Jr.) and wife Namrata are eagerly tying strings to about 40 kites. They intensely measure each knot before tying it tight and teach me how to do it the ‘only way’. The thread is wound round a cylindrical object referred to as ‘Firkee’. The thread itself is thickly coated with finely shred glass – the practice so that in the air their kites fight to reign supreme by cutting the clutter of the rest of the kites within reach. In fact, I can’t wait to see these “dogfights”
5:00 AM – I am awakened by shouts of joy and the din of cymbals (it’s later that I discover that what sounded like cymbals, were in fact big spoons being struck onto big steel plates – all from the household’s kitchen.) Surprised and curious, I rush out to find its Ankit and Namrata on the terrace already bathed and ready, flying kites!
By 9:00 AM, the sky is dotted all over by colourful kites. The terraces, as far as the eye can see, are choc-a-bloc with people of all ages. A kite swoops down, another sweeps a wide arc, yet another float by, and the ears reverberate to the sounds of victory, challenge and joy! The most common shouts are ‘Kaadey’ and ‘Kaapiyo chhe’. Irrespective of cuts on index fingers of most of the kite-flyers, the enthusiasm and the killer-instinct has to be seen to be believed!
Lunch is served by the ladies on the terrace itself – the speciality is a spicy vegetable preparation called ‘Oondhiya’ with ‘puris’. Like other terraces, ours too is blaring away the latest Hindi film hits on a 1000W stereo system. I am simply overwhelmed – all through the day, squinting into the hot sun, the shouting and the enthusiasm just does not seem to wane. As the sun sets, the music goes on but as visibility becomes poor, one by one the kites are all drawn in! Dinner is a lively community affair, with good natured teasing and counts of ‘kills’- the number of kites “cut”.
As dinner ends, I find people making a bee-line for their respective terraces once again. The sight that greets me as I come onto the terrace is awe-inspiring. The sky is dotted with lamps hung onto flying kites, with some kites carrying upto a dozen lamps like lights up a mountain trail! These lamps, called ‘Tukkals,’ are light – made of paper with candles in the centre. This time there are no kite-fights in the air, but as more and more lamps dot the blackness, the stars seem to have descended onto earth! As if this experience in itself was not enough, the Shahs also took me the next day to Akshardham – a huge complex of a contemporary Swami Narayan temple with beautifully well laid out gardens and hi-tech museum at Gandhinagar. On the way back we stopped at the exquisite step-well of Adalaj.
Jan 16, and I am on my way back to Mumbai….
(Sanjeev Goel is fond of dumb charade and travel, but insists that on journeys sleep is essential).