Mar 26, 2009

The politicisation of joy

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editorA few, rather forlorn kites rose timidly into the skies above Lahore on March 15, looking down on a troubled city as it prepared for what would prove a historic "Long March."The early trepidation of flyers, before more and more kites rose up to join them, creating a familiar blaze of darting, bobbing colour, seemed to signal the confusion this year over the observance of Basant, that once innocuous festival that unusually brought people from all income brackets together. The event has, however, remained under shadow for much of the past decade. It has in fact been observed only sporadically since 2006, when the Supreme Court delivered a ruling against the event on the basis that it resulted in a loss of life from injuries caused by sharpened twine. This year, the decision to observe Basant on the March 14 and 15, announced by the Punjab governor, has quite blatantly been a political one – intended to detract attention from the long march and the unseemly arrests that have took place across Lahore ahead of it. These, of course, are all the wrong reasons for marking the event and added to the derision with which the provincial governor is looked upon by most living under his "rule."But there are plenty of "right" reasons of course to mark a festival. The entanglement of Basant with notions of immorality, and now with politics, is unfortunate. There is no linkage at all. The use of string illegally coated with chemicals that can cut like razor blades has added to the angst over the issue. Such deaths are awful; they must not take place ever; no family should suffer the death of a child due to incidents in which twine has cut throats. But it is the illegal twine that must be banned, not the pastime of kite-flying itself. Doing so is akin to banning vehicles because road accidents take place. Other safety measures – more practical than the proposal from the Lahore City District Government that motorbikes be banned during the two-day duration of the festival -- need to be considered. The sport takes place in many other places; the combination of factors that make it lethal in Lahore must be identified and eliminated. There will be many who oppose such suggestions. The argument goes that Basant costs lives. This toll must indeed be stopped. But have we stopped to consider how many lives despondency takes, or hopelessness, or the sense of suffocating despair we find in so many places? There is no way to deny its presence. Young men and boys everywhere speak of somehow leaving the country; they simply cannot find a future within it. Internet cafĂ© owners in low and middle-class localities can produce letter after letter left to linger on desktops seeking some kind of help in finding work or travelling overseas. The flawed English and awkward grammar, taken from "guides" available on roadside pavements in parts of the city, cannot disguise the overwhelming sense of desperation. Elsewhere, children and teenagers roam with no sense of purpose. Unemployment soars. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports a rising rate of suicide, with 141 people taking their lives during the month that ended on Feb 25. Thirty-five of the victims, including a 12-year-old, had opted for suicide due to poverty and accompanying depression. A ten-year-old had also killed himself. According to the Karachi-based Pakistan Association for Mental Health, 44 percent of people in the country, the majority of them women, are depressed.This is not a situation we should ignore. People need joy, some kind of entertainment in their lives; a lack of it can have extremely grave social consequences. At present, we have a situation where pleasure and recreation are increasingly limited to the wealthy. Outside elite clubs, fewer and fewer opportunities exist. Citizens' rights groups have reported extensively on the encroachment into green spaces of buildings that deny children place to play. The "Doonga Ground" saga in Lahore, which locked citizens backed by the Shehri NGO against the Perwaiz Ellahi government in Punjab and its attempts to build an IMAX cinema intended to serve the privileged on the site of a playground that had served the needs of local children for decades, was just one example of this. Similar unethical attempts to take over open ground have taken place in Karachi and Islamabad as well. Similar factors also make the loss of cricket caused by the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankans in Lahore particularly tragic. Cricket acts as a kind of equaliser in an unequal society. The extent of its social impact has not been adequately studied. But in a set up within which not many can hope for social mobility, and a child born in a "katchi abadi" is aware from his earliest days that he is unlikely to move far beyond it, handicapped by that lack of access to quality education or opportunity, cricket allows kids to dream. The fact that most of those who form a part of the national team come from ordinary backgrounds – some, indeed, from poverty-ridden ones – serves as a ray of hope, allowing under-privileged children to at least imagine a life of glory. The fact that cricket (and all sport, to some extent at least) provides a chance to excel on the basis of skill and merit rather than influence or wealth is another reason for this.We need to find ways to re-inject joy in our society. It has receded over the decades. Whereas poverty always existed, squalor has grown as shantytowns and slums have cropped up across cities. Brutality and misery often live there, alongside their residents. In such a circumstance, Basant offers a chance to break free of the confines of dark alleys and cramped homes. It is true the festival has over the years been increasingly taken over by the rich, brought into their farmhouses and seized upon by multinationals. The cost of larger kites and high-quality string is prohibitive. But despite this, kite-flying still belongs too to the children of the streets – giving them something when they have so little else. Kites drift across boundaries of class; it is always possible for a skilled youngster out in a park to cut the string of a kite flown from the roof of a mansion. The delight when this happens says something about the social frustrations that flow through the lives of ordinary people.Despite the delayed announcement, the lingering confusion and the fact that Basant this year was intended to serve a political purpose, the event brought to life mohallas across Lahore. Flying indeed continued into the next weekend. We saw some signs of celebration in a culture where there is now less and less to cheer about. There are undoubtedly realties that make kite-flying dangerous. The concerns of people who oppose the sport are in many ways justified; they cannot be undermined or ignored. But the fact also is that the opposition to Basant has become enwrapped with growing religious extremism. The only secular festival on our calendar has been shunted largely off it. We need to bring it back again; to protect people's right to joy and to find ways to safely fly a kite without posing a safety hazard or making political statements of any kind.Kamila Hyat

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