Across the border

Basant: A eulogy to Lahore’s greatest festival that may soon be a fading memory

The kite flying festival was banned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court and has not been held for nearly a decade.

It was the greatest festival of Lahore, Basant was. A celebration of the arrival of spring, the festival was one of the last remnants of our pre-Islamic culture, popularly associated most with kite flying. Across the city, wherever there was an open ground or a garden, and there were plenty, it would be taken over by kite flyers. On the streets, little children in tattered clothes would chase kites descending from the sky. All manner of shopkeepers, whether selling groceries, books or cloth, would stock a pile of kites, for there were never enough. Many Lahoris abroad who could afford only one trip home a year would visit around Basant. For a day or too, a deeply religious society that had gradually shunned its non-Muslim heritage after Partition would suspend its inhibition and make merry. The final show would last a night and day.

There were always people who held any association with the country’s non-Muslim traditions as anathema, and they would protest, asking for the festival to be banned. But the state, otherwise never shy to concede ground to the religious right, would turn a deaf ear. The festival was just too important to be abandoned; it was essential to being a Lahori. It was also celebrated in other cities around Punjab, but there was nothing like Lahore’s Basant. Karachi had its sea, Islamabad had its mountains, Lahore had its Basant.

On almost every rooftop, music would blare from loudspeakers as men, women and children flew colourful kites while others gorged on food or lazed around. It was as if the entire city was swaying to the arrival of the spring breeze, with the kites littering the sky jumping along to the beats of the music. Around the turn of the century, as the military ruler Pervez Musharraf ushered in multinational corporations, the festival was highly commercialised and an industry of event planners, sponsors and concert organisers grew round it. For serious kite flyers, however, all this was peripheral to kite flying competitions. And that was not all fun. People had been killed as a result of rivalries that started in such competitions; many had fallen off their roofs, their eyes glued to the sky and holding firm the strings of their kites as they fell to their death. As competitions grew fiercer, stronger and sharper strings arrived that could cut through one’s fingers if pulled too forcefully. But the kite flyers injured thus wore bandages on their fingers like warriors their scars. Eventually, there emerged the supposedly unbreakable “chemical-coated” strings. Those using it were invincible, it was said, for their kites could not be cut free.

Fading memory

The Supreme Court, though, was not amused. In 2005, it ordered the state to ban the celebration of Basant, saying that it endangered public safety. Turned out the stray strings were cutting through the necks of innocent bikers on the roads. Many had died in this manner over the years with both the makers and users of the deadly strings oblivious to the great harm they were causing. After the ban, the festival dwindled.

It made a comeback in 2007 when the local government lifted the ban, only to witness more deaths from stray strings. In 2009, Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab, again lifted the ban in an attempt to dampen the “Long March” that Nawaz Sharif was planning against the federal government of Taseer’s Pakistan People’s Party. Again, there were a few deaths and the ban was reimposed.

Since then, every February has been greeted with rumours of the Punjab government lifting the ban. This year too, there were such rumours and a host of organisations lobbied for the ban to be lifted, but in vain. Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif – a Lahori who once patronised the festival like his brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – has categorically rejected the demand to remove the restriction.

That is unfortunate, not least for a generation of young adults that has grown up in Punjab without witnessing its greatest festival. The older people, of course, cherish the memories they have of celebrating it. But, if the ban is not lifted, and soon, Basant will become a fading memory, another cultural treasure lost. Only a handful of people in Punjab today remember celebrating Lohri or Baisakhi like festivals were meant to. Is the same fate awaiting Basant?

Haroon Khalid is the author of Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.