An ancient banyan which had grown through the cracks of an abandoned mosque was the only tree in the street known as Gali Ram Nath. And little Ali’s kite had caught in its branches.
The boy, barefoot and clad only in a torn shirt, ran along the cobbled stones of the narrow street to where his grandfather sat nodding dreamily in the sunshine of their back courtyard.
‘Grandfather!’ shouted the boy. ‘The kite has gone!’
The old man woke from his daydream with a start and raising his head, displayed a beard which would have been white had it not been dyed red with mehndi leaves.
‘Did the twine break?’ he asked. ‘I know that kite-twine is not what it used to be.’
“No, Grandfather, the kite is stuck in the banyan tree.’
The old man chuckled, ‘You have yet to learn how to fly a kite properly, my child. And I am too old to teach you, that’s the pity of it. But you shall have another.’ He had just finished making a new kite from bamboo, paper and thin silk, and it lay in the sun, firming up. It was a pale pink kite, with a small green tail. The old man handed it to Ali, and the boy raised himself on his toes and kissed his grandfather’s hollowed-out cheek.
“I will not lose this one,’ he said. “This kite will fly like a bird.’
And he turned on his heels and skipped out of the courtyard.
The old man remained dreaming in the sun. His kite-shop had gone, the premises having been sold many years ago to a junk dealer. But he still made kites for his own amusement and as playthings for this grandson, Ali,. Not many people bought kites these days. Adults disdained them and children preferred to spend their money at the movies. Moreover, there were few open spaces left for flying kites. The city had swallowed up the green maidan which had stretched from the old fort walls to the river-bank.
But the old man remembered a time when grown-ups flew kites from the maidan, and great battles were fought, the kites swerving and swooping in the sky, tangling with each other, until the string of one was cut. Then the beaten but liberated kite would float away into the blue unknown. “There was a good deal of betting, and money frequently changed hands.
Kite-flying was then the sport of kings. The old man remembered how the Nawab himself would come down to the river-bank with his retinue to join in this noble pastime. In those days, there was time to spend an idle hour with a gay, dancing strip of paper. Now everyone hurried, hurried in a heat of hope, and delicate things like kites and daydreams were trampled underfoot.
Mahmood, the kite-maker, had been well known throughout the city in the prime of his life. Some of his more elaborate kites sold for as much as three or four rupees. At the request of the Nawab he had once made a very special kind of kite, unlike any that had been seen in the district. It consisted of a series of small, very light paper discs, trailing on a thin bamboo frame. To tge extremity of each disc he tied a sprig of grass for balance. The surface of the foremost disc was slightly convex, and a fantastic face was painted on it, with the two eyes made of small mirrors. The discs, decreasing in size from head to tail, gave the kite the appearance of a crawling serpent. It required great skill to raise this cumbersome device from the ground, and only Mahmood could manage it.
Everyone had, of course, heard of the ‘dragon kite’ that Mahmood had built, and word went round that it possessed supernatural powers. A large crowd assembled on the maidan to watch its first public launching in the presence of the Nawab. At the first attempt it did not budge from the ground. The disc made a plaintive, protesting sound, and the sun was trapped in the little mirrors, making the kite a living, complaining creature.
Then the wind came from the right direction and the dragon kite soared into the sky, wriggling is way higher and higher, with the sun still glinting in tis devil-eyes; When it went very high, it pulled fiercely on the twine, and Mahmood’s young sons had to help him with the reel. But still the kite pulled, determined to be free, to live a life of its own.
And then it happened. The twine snapped, the kite leapt away towards the sun, sailed on until it was lost o view. It was never found again, and Mahmood wondered afterwards if he had made too vivid, too living a thing of the great kite. He did not make another like it, but instead presented the Nawab with a musical kite, one that made a sound like the veena.
Yes, those were more leisurely days. But the Nawab had died years ago; his descendants were almost as poor as mahmood himself. Kite-makers, like poets once had their patrons; Mahmood now had none. No one asked him his name and occupation, simply because there were too many people in the gali and nobody could be bothered about neighbours.
When he was younger and had fallen sick, everyone in the neighbor-hood had come to ask after his health. Now, when his days were drawing to a close, no one visited him. Most of his old friends were dead. His sons had grown up; one was working in a local garage, the other had stayed in Pakistan where he was at the time of partition.
The children who had bought kites from him ten years ago were now adults struggling for a living; they did not have time for the old man and his memories. Having grown-up in a swift-changing, competitive world, they looked at the old kite-maker with the same indifference as they showed towards the banyan tree.
Both were taken for granted as permanent fixtures that were of no concern to the mass of humanity that surrounded them. No longer did people gather under the banyan tree to discuss their problems and their plans; only in the summer months did someone seek shelter under it from the fierce sun.
But there was, of course, the boy, his grandson, It was good that his son worked close by, and he and the daughter-in-law could live in Mahmood’s house. It gladdened his heart to watch the boy at play in the winter sunshine, growing under his eyes like a young and well-nourished sapling, putting forth new leaves each day.
There is a great affinity between trees and men. They grow at much the same pace, if they are not hurt or starved, or cut down. In their declining years, they stoop a little. They remember, they stretch their brittle limbs in the sun, and, with a sigh, shed their last leaves.
Mahmood was like the banyan, his hands gnarled and twisted like the roots of the ancient tree. Ali was like the young mimosa planted at the end of the courtyard. In two years both he and the tree would acquire the strength and confidence that are characteristic of youth.
The voices in the street grew fainter, and Mahmood wondered if he was going to fall asleep and dream, as he so often did , of beautiful, powerful kite resembling the great white bird of the Hindus, Garuda, God Vishnu’s famous steed.
He would like to make a wonderful new kite for little Ali. He had nothing else to leave the boy.
He heard Ali’s voice in the distance, but did not realize that the boy was calling out to him. The voice seemed to come from very far away.
Ali was at the courtyard door, asking if his mother had as yet returned from the bazaar. When Mahmood did not answer, the boy came forward, repeating his question. The sunlight was slanting across the old man’s head, and a small white butterfly was perched on his flowing beard. Mahmood was silent and when Ali put his small brown hand on the old man’s shoulder, he got no response. The boy heard faint sound, like the rubbing of marbles in his pocket.
Suddenly afraid, Ali turned and moved to the door, and then ran down the street shouting for his mother. And in the banyan tree, a sudden gust of wind caught the torn kite and lifted it into the air, carrying it far above the struggling sweating city, into the blue sky.