Basant I

This week Lahore celebrates Jashan-e Baharan – Spring Celebration – or more popularly known as Basant – the Kite festival. Now “kites” may bring to your mind grassy hills, warm breezes, little children running with plastic strings and boxed contraptions in the sky. Or it may bring to your mind fantastically shaped dragons and demon heads. Or maybe Ole’ Franklin’s cheap attempt for adrenalin. What should come to your mind upon hearing the word Basant is a wildly colorful festival that covers the skies of Lahore with swooping triangles and the streets of Lahore with gangs of bow-kata kids. On the family side, it is a great weekend when everyone dresses in mustard-hued fineries, climbs to the highest reachable point of their residences, puts on music and flies kites non-stop for 48 hours. On the professional circuit, it is a hard-core battle of skills and wits with fingers cut through to the bones and eyes squinted shut through years of kiting. On the dangerous side, it is a cut-throat (ok, literally) world where children and adults engage in top-gun-style dog-fighting in the air with strings coated with glass [or plain metal] and chase the “defeated” kites through roads and alleys heeding no man or machine.

So, this week is Basant Week here at CM. A bit of history today. String preparation and type of kites tomorrow. Next, rules of engagement. And HOPEFULLY, some of my readers in Lahore and Karachi will take some pics and we can have those contributions as well. Yes, that is a mission, should you chose to accept it.

Han Hsin, a Chinese General, supposedly used a kite to find enemies in 200 BC. Sounds dubious but I hereby request Jonathan Dresner’s help. In any case, kite flying came out of China into India, Central Asia (and Europe). In India, we have references to kites in the fourth century Panchatantra tales, translated into the Arabic in Kalila wa Dimna. Kites found a sacred and recreational space in the Malay, Pacific Islands, Japan etc. The Turkic and Mongolian influx into the Islamic world made kite-flying into a leisure activity from Cairo to Delhi by the 13th century. However, kite-flying was never a sport for the masses; it was for the indulgence of princes in their marble terraces [just like pigeons but I digress].

Basant itself is a north-Indian celebration of Spring. The Basant Pancami festival was the a five day festival during the Magh month [Jan-Feb] when the fields are awash in mustard-seed flowers. and consisted of people dressing in mustard-color clothes and having a good time. This festival can be traced at least since the mid thirteenth century and here is a late, yet prototypical account, from the early 19th century by Mrs. Meer Hassan Ali [an Englishwoman married to an Indian noble]:

There is a festival observed at Lucknow called Bussund (spring-colour). I should remark here, that almost all the trees of India have perpetual foliage; as the season approaches for the new leaves to sprout, the young buds force off the old leaves; and when the trees are thus clothed in their first delicate foliage, there is a yellow tinge in the colour which is denominated Bussund (Spring). A day is appointed to be kept under this title, and then every one wears the Bussund colour; no one would be admitted at Court without this badge of the day. The elephants, horses and camels of the King, or of his nobles, are all ornamented with the same colour on their trappings.
The King holds a Court, gives a public breakfast, and exhibits sports with ferocious animals. The amusements of this day are chiefly confined to the Court: I have not observed much notice taken of it in private life.

As usual, we can blame the Sufis for bringing the festival into the Muslim pantheon. By the Mughal period, Basant was a popular festival at the major Sufi shrines. We have, for example, mentions of Nizam Auliya ki Basant, Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki ki Basant, Khusrau ki Basant; festivals arranged around the shrines of these various sufi saints. Khusrau, the famous sufi-poet of the thirteenth century, even composed verses on Basant:

Aaj basant mana lay suhagan, aaj basant mana lay/
Anjan manjan kar piya mori, lambay neher laga lay/
Tu kya sovay neend ki maasi,

so jaagay teray bhaag, suhaagun, Aaj basant mana layÖ..;/
Oonchi naar kay oonchay chitvan,

ayso diyo hai banaaye/
Shah Amir tuhay dekhan ko, nainon say naina milaaye, /
Suhaagun, aaj basant manaalay.

Celebrate basant today, O bride, Celebrate basant today/
Bring out your lotions,and decorate your long hair/
Oh why are you the servant of sleep? Even your fate is wide awake, Celebrate basant today/
O high lady with high looks, […], when the king looks at you, you meet his eyes,/
O Bride, Celebrate basant today [bad translation]

A typical celebration during the Mughal period would entail the devotees of the Sufi traveling to the shrine on Basant clad in yellow to offer garlands of yellow flowers and sing qawwalis all night long. Now THAT’s a good time!

I mention the involvement of the Sufis in Basant history because the popular trope of religious leaders in modern Pakistan has been to denounce Basant as a Hindu celebration that needs to be stopped. You often read/hear nonsense such as this. Bah Humbug.

Lahore was an early and central city in the emergence of competitive kite-flying. I don’t exactly know how or why kite-flying left the nobility and became a competitive sport for the masses in South Asia and neither do I know when it merged with the Basant festival [ok, i can find out but please]. Some conjecture is that it happened in late 18th to early 19th c period when Basant and the Mughal king’s birthday landed on the same day. Regardless, it became widely observed festival among Hindus and Muslims of North India and though the “spring” angle has dwindled in Pakistan, the “kite” aspect is more vigorous than ever. Actually, come to think of it, the “spring” angle is the “official” angle. Ha.

Also see India’s Basant.

Related: Basant II, Basant III

Spot Sepoy

Kottke had a link up this morning about amazon’s new addition to their a9 engine – Yellow Pages. Intrigued, I clicked over. They display little pictures of the businesses in the search results. Massively cool. Their how-we-did-it video [qt] tells us that they mounted cameras on lots of SUVs and then drove around the major cities taking snaps. Amazing.

So, I entered a local pizza joint’s name. Search came up with it along with a picture of the store front. I clicked on the “walk up and down the street” arrows to see what else they had. And I keep clicking around the block when I see THE ENTIRE SEPOY HOUSEHOLD on!! It must have been sometime in October and we seem to be returning from lunch. Maybe a sunday? How massively weird is that?!

I don’t know about you but I am freaked out by the internets lately.

update: first, welcome to kottke readers. second, here is the search, with a bit of hesitation.

The Write Stuff

Via moorish girl, comes another gripe about the literary quality of Indians writing in English about India – again on their “authenticity”. I covered earlier the historian’s spat around the same issue of who has the right to write about India – only pure-bred and indian-raised and indian-living Indians or these westernized diaspora hacks who come back to visit the grandparents and get a book deal to sponsor the trip because selling the exotic East is so much easier if the salesman is brown.

Roy critiques these foreign-desis thusly:

Bajwa, Suri and Swarup appropriate the lives of people whom they do not understand; unlike Bibhutibhushan, who lived Apu’s life of deprivation in the city and the village, unlike Mulk Raj Anand, who saw at first hand what the humiliations of an untouchable encompassed, they are at a remove from their subjects. And I do mean subjects.
The fact that an appropriation is benign, or well-intentioned, does not make it any less of an appropriation. Monica Ali does a more sophisticated version of the same thing, using a journalist’s techniques and a ham playwright’s voice when she employs pidgin English to convey the pathos of a Bangladeshi woman’s letters from the village to a luckier relative abroad.
This does not make their novels any less entertaining, in the cases of Bajwa and Swarup, or any less well-written, in the case of Monica Ali and Manil Suri. But it does set up a constant, low-level interference that prevents an astute reader from engaging with their novels at a deeper level. I would call it white noise, were it not so very clearly brown.

They don’t truly understand. Because comprehension is tied to the local – the land, the people, the language. If you are one of us, you will write for us, in our language. The gripe is not new but has an interesting history. In most cases, it comes from the gateholders of litrary culture – the critics. The popularity of the author in or out of India does not really matter. In fact, if the author gets lots of sales or good press in English, it further dooms them to the gallows of authenticity. Allow me to elaborate the broader charges made by critics. By adopting English, as opposed to Tamil or Bengali or whatever, the Indian author is said to alienate his Tamil or Bengali or whatever audience who do not speak or read English. This is either a pseudo-distancing that takes the author out of one category (family, native) into another (interloper, colonizer) or a real-distancing if the author is only of Indian origin and resident in the West. Concurrently, by adopting English, as opposed to Tamil or Bengali or whatever, the Indian author chooses the metropole, or native elites, as her audience. This is either self-superiority that enables her to speak to them on behalf of us or it is self-inferiority that makes her choose the colonial language and idiom for self-expression. Such accusations of elitism or opportunism are never raised against those that write in vernacular language even though the literacy rate hovers at the bottom for everyone.

One of the first to face these charges was Kasi Das Prasad Ghosh (1809-73). In 1830, when he published his volume of English verse, The Shair and Other Poems, he was branded “inauthentic” for his mimicry. Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay’s (1838-1903) nationalist Bengali poetry was also seen by Indian literary critics of the time as too heavily indebted to Shakespeare and Byron to be called Bengali, yet that did not hinder his popularity as the foremost imagineer of a united India. Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s 1885 The Young Zamindar was the first prose work in English to come out in India to widespread acclaim and accusations of inauthenticity. Tagore’s 1913 Nobel Prize for his English verses in Gitangali is the obvious highlight of this trend. Mulk Raj Anand’s novels of the 20s and 30s dealt with societal ills of India. Yet, at that time, he was accused of speaking only to the elite to whom the issues of untouchability etc. were only of academic interest. In the 40s and 50s and later the same charge of elitism was leveled against R. K. Narayan, Ruth Jhabvala, and Anita Desai among many others. There was some moderation given to the careers of V. S. Naipul, Salman Rushdie, and Ashish Nandy who were heralded with both critical and popular acclaim during the 70s and 80s but the tide turned with the newest crop of writers led by Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize. The rise of hot publishing sensations chronicling India’s inner and external monologues has produced the predicted backlash. Mango fiction made them mad.

Pakistan has a lag of about 30 years in terms of writers writing in English but the recent crop of Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie is already facing the same criticisms.

Uh. I need to get to work. Damn you blog.

Head Before Wicket

No fun being a fan of Pakistani cricket lately. Of course, I have risen above such petty nationalisms a long time ago. I am now an objective connoisseur of the tao of cricket. But for those that care, Pakistan has taken a beating far surpassing their usual flameouts. Consider this: First Test – Australia wins by 491 runs after Pakistan is bowled out in the second inning for 72 runs. S-E-V-E-N-T-Y-T-W-O. Second Test – Australia wins by nine wickets after Pakistan scuttles for 163 in the second inning. Third Test – Australia wins by nine wickets after hammering Pakistan for 568 in the first inning.

Sweet Holy Baba Farid! What went on Down Under? The batting collapse is obvious. But, even the pacemen couldn’t get anything? Next came the humiliation in the one format that should favor Pakistanis -the Twenty20. Aussie “A” kicked their ass. The trend continued in the ODIs where Australia won by 6 and 9 wickets in their two meetings. As if all that was not enough, rape allegations against an unnamed player surfaced. Though the PCB says the claims are baseless, there is much bad vibe in the air. PCB is publicly angry. Not that that means anything. If there is one kafkaesque bureaucracy in Pakistan, it is the Pakistan Cricket Board.

The team can only pray that all this is a bad dream and plead for a stress-free tour of Bangladesh or maybe a casual series in Srilanka. But, next up is India. And The General is pissed and, in his eagerness to become Zia II, has issued “guidelines” to the team.

The India tour, slated for next month, is indeed big news. Big in every respect. Most significantly, will the Pakistani players party as hard as the Indians did in Lahore? But seriously, this series is another milestone CBM (not Continental Ballistic Missiles but Confidence Building Measure). There is a book on Cricket Nationalism that someday I won’t write. Starting with Zia’s famous “cricket diplomacy”, but really going back to Ayub, India and Pakistan have pushed their cricketers to be their proxy warriors, diplomats, heroes and villains. Perhaps a little unfair that such a burden should fall on the shoulders of men trying to figure out their sweep shots but such are the vagaries of life in South Asia.

With Pakistan’s current state of affairs, I don’t hold much hope for them in India. Still, I will be covering the series as your political correspondent (from my comfortable couch).