In Ahmedabad, the time around November-December is when you get a whiff of Uttarayan in the air. You know kites will be the next thing you see in the sky after the fireworks bid us goodbye; thanks to the numerous manja makers, who move into the city three months before the celebration and engage themselves in the arduous process of producing strong, abrasive strings to let the kites soar high.
In the summer of 2003, when I moved to Ahmedabad with my parents and as a ‘newbie’, I found the number of manja makers doubling by the day in November quite interesting. I figured out two things:
1. Most of them were not Gujaratis and spoke different languages, and
2. They migrated to the city in packs and coming to this part of the country before Sankranti was an annual affair.
But I wondered, why? Why would anyone throw their lives away and come down all the way to a place that gets horribly cold and dry in November? After interacting with a manjha maker from Assam, I realised that there is a possibility of earning good returns because patang baazi (kite flying) is a big deal in Gujarat!
It was a delightful sight to witness ladies making chapattis every morning on kerosene stoves on the street, while their men rubbed a thick colourful paste on strings in one quick motion. Young boys did the same thing at the other end of the strings. They dripped in sweat by the end of afternoon, took small breaks in between for tea, chatted with fellow manja makers and discussed about the market and how much they were hoping to make this year.
During the Uttarayan season, a manja maker prepares around 100 to 250 ‘charkhis’ of string every day and the dealer, who provides them the raw material, pays them one rupee for every reel they prepare. Charkhis are then sold by these dealers for anywhere around Rs.50-250. The kites are also supplied to other states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Delhi and many other places in India. Over the last 10 years, the kite-making business in Gujarat has grown from Rs.100 crore to Rs.700 crore.
Uttarayan is a two-day affair in Gujarat; first, there is ‘Uttarayan’ and the day following is the ‘Vasi Uttarayan’. Every year, Ahmedabad witnesses a huge number of kite enthusiasts participating in the International Kite Festival organized on a large scale, where the who’s who in the city take part along with the locals. It is also the time when the state witnesses a surge in foreign tourists. Grown up men, young boys and girls gather on every rooftop; singing and dancing besides flying kites and scream their lungs out when their kites clash with others’.
Gujarati women, meanwhile, prepare Jalebis, Fafda, Dhokla and traditional specialty Undhiyu, a spicy vegetable dish. They then distribute these goodies to other households and get something in return, which is eventually shared with someone else. The aroma of these delicacies pervades the air. Also, not to forget the DJ parties (read booze parties in a dry state!) after a long hard day of kite flying.
Last but not the least, the Chinese lanterns or Tukkal light up the sky, that most certainly will make you wonder if they are celebrating Diwali again! In short, it is what Dussehra is to Mysoreans (minus the drinks, I suppose!). This is all made possible to a large extent because of the manja makers who toil every day until January 13 to produce a strong string that would have an edge over the others.
However, there is a lot more here than what meets the eye. Besides noticing a new manja stand every day, I also noticed the diversity that existed, for these manja makers all spoke in different languages and if not the language, the dialect seemed to differ. One could say that a mini India existed in every corner, in the background of a colourful charkhi.
Sometimes, the newspapers talked about rising cases of bird injuries due to manjha kites. A bird rescuer in Ahmedabad estimated that 2,000 birds including pigeons, eagles and vultures are injured every year during the Uttarayan season and around 500 of them die from their injuries. Shockingly, the Bird Conservation Society of Gujarat state that at least 100 species of bird, including many endangered species, were injured last year. However, that did not deter people from buying manjas.
We were now just a week away from Uttarayan and half the sky was already covered with colourful kites of different sizes. The streets had an opposite tale, though. Loose strings of manjas thrown everywhere on the road and commuters manoeuvring their two-wheelers to keep the abrasive strings away from their vehicles.
At this point, I got to speak with one of the young boys who told me it was his first time outside of his home town. While working, he always keeps a heap full of flour-like substance and some fine glass powder which are mixed with the colour. “The mixture will be kneaded to get a paste. And then we apply first layer of colour on the strings. The second coating begins after the first coating dries off.” He explained the whole process eloquently.
But it was my naïve question, perhaps, that crushed his enthusiasm at once.
“So, will you be flying a kite and eating the sweets this time?” An odd silence ran between us for a minute, which then got stretched into two.
He finally shook his head, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and resumed work. While I stood there wishing I had kept the question to myself!