For the residents of the funfair town of Dwarka everyday is a festival, but the 15th of January marks an extra-special day celebrated across Gujarat: Makursunkranti, or Kite Day!
For a town where religion rules and the inhabitants are gorged on the devotional, a festival based on the non-religious elicits the kind of excitement you might expect.
People had been practising their kite-flying since I arrived in Dwarka, and, as I enjoyed the cool of the early evening from my hotel’s roof, surveying the city and the sea, I had taken the multitudes of young kite flyers on their own rooftops to be nothing more than an after-school activity, a local hobby, perhaps even nothing more than a fleeting trend-cum-obsession like the yo-yos of my mid-teens.
But come the day, everyone’s talking about it, and everywhere I go people are asking me to fly their kites with them on their rooftops! By midday the sky looks like a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, and by dusk the entire population of Dwarka is testing the city’s structural integrity by running and jumping about on the roofs of its buildings.
Drummers from the local band provide a thumping rhythm to the shrieks and shouts, originating from somewhere near the temple and reverberating across the whole town. Soon the sun begins its descent and the familiar dusty shroud starts to envelop the cityscape, while tiny kites, uniform in size and shape but of various colours, flitter and fret across the sky, attached by strings to the fingers of small children and their elders alike, who fight with them like fishermen reeling in fish taken to the skies. Screams of “Dormillow!” – instructions to the kite-flyers to let their kites soar into the sky in the hope of cutting down another kite as their strings become crossed – struggle to be heard over the drum beats.
Soon fireworks start erupting – flash bangs like lazy dynamite baiting of these flying fish – and dust and darkness descend as the sun disappears into the Arabian Sea. But before the blackness, a vivid display of colours lights the horizon: intense reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks layered between the dark blues of the ocean and the night sky; and all of it watched by a loan figure silhouetted atop a bean pole at Dwarka’s highest point, grappling with Krishna’s very own mighty kite.
In this wonderful moment I forget that I’m in a tourist in a tourist town. The temple becomes a part of the town instead of its purpose, and I am simply a person among people, a friend among friends. I forget my comparisons with Blackpool and Disneyland, and I forget the fringes which had shaped my first thoughts of Dwarka. Instead I remember the centre, and the vibrant streets around the temple.
They are tight and narrow and the buildings block out the sun confusing your bearings and helping you lose your way through the maze that is all the more disorientating for appearing to be a grid when it is nothing of the sort.
Arched doorways fuel intrigue and present portals into other worlds: down passageways with more archways, windows of latticed brickwork and pale colours that shine serenely in the sunlight.
The occasional glimpse of the intricate carvings of a tower which could belong to any one of a hundred identical temples spins your inner compass even more. But these streets were not made for navigating, and efficiency knows no home here. Like life, these streets were made for exploring!
Of course that is only the romanticism of a mind with too much time and too little purpose. These streets were not ‘made’ at all. They are a consequence: the result of the construction of houses and homes, shacks and shelters sprung from the ground in spontaneous unplanned disarray. Theirs is the confusion of India herself.
They are the gaps, the unconquered, uncolonised and hitherto protected wild places of the civilised town. They are the downs, glens, vales and valleys to nature’s hills and mountains, and in these recesses the babbling brooks and raging torrents gather and shape the landscape with their deposits of gold and withdrawals of trinkets, food and tchai. A silky river of flowing ethereal colour as saris merge and eddie around one another, and the constant murmuring burble of splashy conversation completes the scene.
But in India the proof of industry in the form of guttural 4-stroke grumblings is rarely out of range. Somehow, the motorbikes with their ‘easyrider’ fashionistas and rickshaws with their maniacal though slightly safer drivers part these rivers without slowing down. Until, that is, they meet me. A stupefied rock in this fluid dance I am invariably caught in the way, and the whole scene comes to a temporary halt to stare at me. There is that feeling when the not unwelcome but uninvited guest at a party does something embarrassing like accidentally turning the music off: everyone contains their irritation politely but the mood is felt by all.
But this is the fate of the traveller: the ugly rock to be bashed and crashed against by rivers of people and waterfalls of culture until it is shaped in such a way that their waters can glide smoothly around its surface and hardly even notice that it’s there at all.