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ISLAMABAD CALLING

Kite-flying in the time of high spirits

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN

From liquor to kite-flying, Pakistan debates some tough issues as spring arrives.


It's once again that time of the year when Pakistan agonises about whether or not to fly kites. Real ones.

Photo: AFP

To fly or not to fly: Public protest at the kite festival in Lahore.

SPRING — or at least the prospect of it — injects a je ne sais quoi to the spirit, it has to be agreed. Or else, why would a Pakistani politician stand up in Parliament and make such a spirited case for, well, spirits. The stuff remains banned here since the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a Prime Minister who loved his whisky but thought banishing it was a good way to trump his religious political adversaries.

But last week, in front-page-making news, the ruling party parliamentarian, Ali Akbar Wains, rose and told the National Assembly boldly that it was time to reverse the Bhutto decision. But let's be clear: his demand was not of the rough "let's bring back the booze" kind. The ban on alcohol, he argued, was driving people to drugs, and this was worse. For good measure, he added that drinking too was bad. Still, it was a "minor evil" compared to doing drugs. The Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Sher Afghan Niazi, too spoke up supporting the argument.

Reasons to go legit

What he could not say, of course, was that ban or no ban, the "minor evil" is all-pervasive — his remarks to the effect were expunged — so let's just go ahead and make it legit. Pakistan swills as many glasses of alcohol every evening as water, if not more. Want proof? Look up the latest issue of the Herald magazine, which has a two-page advert by Willing Ways, Pakistan's Alcoholics Anonymous. At private parties, it is served with as much ιlan as anywhere in the world, and a bunch of buddies can just as easily get drunk together in Islamabad as they do in Delhi. You cannot order it in restaurants, but for those who have made friends with the system, that's a minor inconvenience. Liquor is widely available, you just have to know where to get it. Many people go the minority route. Muslims cannot drink, but Hindus, Christians and Parsis may. They have little permits from the government allowing them to buy booze. They go out and buy, and then they sell to those who cannot. If you are down and out — and many in the minority communities are — this is no small way to make some money.

Doing well

Is it any surprise then that Murree Breweries is doing very well? Pakistan drinks more beer than they can make. Pakistan's only liquor makers, the Parsi family that runs the brewery, have now decided it's time to go high-end and make a single malt. Officially, most people in Pakistan must remain cut off from this achievement of the country, but on whether this law will be observed, I won't bet even the crumbling Suzuki Marghella that passes for my car.

Yes, there are middlemen, and they are doing well too. The danger is that unless you have a reliable "alcohol consultant" a.k.a bootlegger, you don't know what combination of chemicals you are imbibing. As a foreigner in Pakistan — the other category of people in Pakistan legally allowed to drink — I have found that one of the best gifts I can take to a Pakistani home, aside from kaju katli from India, is a bottle of something or the other.

* * *

It's once again that time of the year when Pakistan agonises about whether or not to fly kites. Real ones. Nothing presses the fun button in Pakistanis as Basant, the spring festival. It all happens in Lahore, though, for a month from Febraury 15 to March 15. People dance and sing, and the rich party and yes, drink, like there is no tomorrow. Women wear yellow and green, and generally look like a flowering mustard field, and make all of Lahore look like one too. That's the idea. Kites — of all shapes, sizes and prices — used to be an essential part of the fun, and those who have seen it swear you couldn't spot an inch of blue in the sky when the kites were all out. Coaxed, goaded, pampered, reeled in and reeled out by their skilled fliers, pursued as they fell out of the skies by kite-chasers, these little squares of paper were to Basant what an item number is to Bollywood these days. But now that's all gone out of the window. Last year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan banned kites. Killjoys, is the first reaction. But then, too many people were getting hurt, and getting killed, because of the glass and metal-spiked thread that some nasties were using for their kites. Motorcycle riders were particularly at risk. Kite fliers were also falling off terraces in their enthusiasm. Electricity lines were getting short-circuited, people were getting electrocuted. All sorts of dire things were happening. Like firecrackers at Deepavali, kites are fun, but they can be dangerous.

Dilemma

For the government, it is a right royal dilemma. Too much money rides on the festival to abandon the celebrations altogether. The kites are a huge tourist attraction. And there's the small matter of not wanting to kick a tradition out totally. That is one reason it decided to allow kite-flying on two days — February 24 and 25, through some special law that sidesteps the ban.

But those who want to indulge in one of Lahore's favourite springtime activity must first get a license from the government, as must those who sell the kites and the special thread that goes with them. Plus, the thread must be certified as safe. Motorcyclists are also being asked to fit out their vehicles with special antenna like contraptions that will catch the thread before it cuts their necks off. There are some dark mumblings from some quarters about how Basant itself is un-Islamic but no one is taking that seriously.

So see you in Lahore next weekend, if you can get a visa.

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