MUHAMMAD ASLAM bows two bamboo reeds on taut, translucent pink paper. After a deft knot, a cross brace, glue, and an aerodynamic prayer, Mr. Aslam, a kitemaker for two decades, finishes another sky-worthy craft.
In Pakistan's cultural capital, people talk day and night about taxes and trials, President Clinton and Kashmir, old leaders and new. But for 48 hours in early spring, people in Lahore forget politics and daily cares - and literally go fly a kite.
Basant was for decades a modest festival here. But in the late 1990s, the late February weekend became the largest single celebration in Pakistan, overflowing this city of spacious parks, 22 colleges, film studios, and Mughal-era architecture. Sons and daughters fly in from Dubai, Chicago, and Jakarta. Families rent rooftops and backyards, where they lay down thick oriental carpets and broil chickens for a picnic to the sound of beating drums. People wear yellow scarves and dresses in honor of the newly blooming mustard flower.
And 8 million gaze up at a sky filled with criss-crossing, dueling paper kites. Along with the aesthetic enjoyment of kite flying, basant is also known for kite fighting. Kite fighters spend days coating their string or twine with a mixture of cut glass or sand, the better to slice - as politely as possible - the line of a fellow flyer.
By twilight, from the parapet of the Old Town fort, rooftops glow with party lanterns and white searchlights. Thousands of rising strings are illuminated. Intermittently, out of the crepuscular air, shouts of bo kata or "kite down" are heard. As the sun sets, larger and larger kites are set aloft, some more than 20 feet long.
"I came back this year from Virginia," says Ansar Butts, a pinstriped Pakistani-American businessman. "I never used to come home, and I never heard of basant when I grew up here. But the last two years I wanted to be a host." His family holds a huge basant party on a roof in Old Town.
No one is sure how basant became so popular so fast here. Some think there's a yearning for a secular holiday, a sort of Mardi Gras or nonalcoholic Oktoberfest in this Muslim country. Some say the diaspora of the 1990s, the search abroad for jobs, makes basant a time to visit home. Others say the fun and relaxation of a novel sport has its own lure.
"You get outside in the sun, you forget everything, you send the kite up, you look at all the happy faces - I love it," says Imitaz Mazari. "Everyone needs a little lightheartedness."
Yet the sport is also taken quite seriously: The All Pakistani Kite Flying Association proposes to hold the world cup of kite competition next year in Lahore.
Harsan, Khasif, Shehid, and Ehmud are out at Race Course Park, the main gathering place for kiters. In their carbon-copy sunglasses, jeans, and smooth haircuts, they casually unpack 80 small craft from a special Gore-Tex kite bag. The night before they planned strategy - the serious guys fly in teams - in hopes of winning the basant competition.
Team members do battle from octagonal wooden platforms about 30 yards apart. A good flier makes his kite dive rapidly and flutter in place - not unlike the graceful member of the hawk family with which the kite shares its name. The first team to down 11 kites wins. "It's not a war, it's a friendly battle," says Khasif.
Spicing up matters are the wolfish lutiara, or looters. These bad boys of the kite world recover downed kites and rove in packs up and down the park, mixing and jostling among the more genteel flyers. But at basant, a "Mr. Lutiara" award is given to the boy who collects the most kites.
One thing missing in public displays of kiting are women. Officially, in recent years, women have been allowed to fly kites with equal ardor. It is true that young girls do go for the sport, and older women do so from home. But in practice, not many females will hoist a kite in public, nor are kite clubs for young people mixed - the social strictures on co-ed activity are still very strong.
The main basant crisis is the number of power lines that shut down when kiters using illegal copper or metal string get them tangled between lines.
The main criticism comes from Muslim fundamentalists, who want to stop wanton kite flying and its associations with Hindu basant, or spring, celebrations - and from kite-flying purists who oppose the festival's commercialization. For the first time, US firms gave away free logo-bearing kites with a purchase of their products. As the joke in Lahore has it,"Coke, Pepsi, and McDonalds are battling for control of our air space."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society