Thursday, April 03, 2008

K Is For Kite

Away In A Maanja

Lattai handles. Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON


It was only when I sat down to write this post that I realised something very important about my childhood years in India. Kite-flying was one of the universal pastimes that pitted kids of (for want of a better word) "fortunate circumstances" against kids whose parents would never be invited to the homes of the former.

Strange how long it takes for obvious realisation to fall into place, isn't it? I grew up at 3 Dumayne Avenue in Kidderpore, where we had huge homes and huge gardens and all the houses on the avenue were occupied by the families of officers employed by the Calcutta Port Trust.

We all flew kites. But so too did the kids from the homes further west, in the open field that was a world away from our cocooned upbringing, even though it was only a high wall that separated us from them. They would never come over, knock on our door and play cricket or badminton or soccer or hockey with us on our spacious, perfectly manicured lawns.

But when it came to kite-flying season, every kid was equal. There's something about that concept that I find particularly liberating, in hindsight.

This photograph shows a stack of a thousand kites.

Kites were very much a part of my childhood. Not surprisingly, then, there is a long sequence devoted to the art of kite-flying in Chapter 12 of my first novel, Vegemite Vindaloo.

From wingtip to wingtip, a standard kite (your everyday, garden variety) is about as wide as a computer keyboard. The flexible, upright central stick is about 40 centimetres long. The gently arched wing stick, slimmer than the upright stick, forms a graceful elipse from one side to the other. The thin paper that comprises the kite's surface is expertly formed, in a distinctive diamond shape, around the supple but reliable framework. Above the arch, a kite can be one colour. Below the arch, it can be another colour. The wedge-shaped tail, reinforced for weight and stability, is generally a different hue.

It was always a good thing to test and enhance the flexibility of a kite before actually flying it. To do this, you had to hold the top of the kite between thumb and forefinger of one hand and the bottom of the kite in the other thumb and forefinger. Then you had to bend the central stick of the kite slightly and rub it across your head, backwards and forwards. Sometimes, if you didn't have the action right or you put too much pressure on the kite, the central stick would snap and the kite went to Kite Heaven. The distinctive sound of the snapping stick is imprinted indelibly on my memory.


Before you flew a kite, you had to tie a kunni, or thread harness. I was taught to take a length of plain white cotton thread, then to double it for strength, before tying the kunni to the kite.

A matchstick or slim twig is the best implement to make four little holes in the kite's paper surface. The first hole goes on the top left quadrant of the kite where the bent horizontal stick crossed the straight upright. The second hole goes on the bottom right quadrant, about two centimetres away. The third and fourth holes were gently punched through the paper skin, about eight to ten centimetres above the wedge tail, on either side of the upright stick.

One end of the cotton cord goes through the two holes on the top of the kite and is knotted neatly together; the other end of the cord goes through the two holes near the wedge tail and, likewise, is knotted neatly together. Then you draw the cord away from the kite's surface, tying a loop in it at exactly the halfway mark. This is the trickiest part of tying a kunni. If the two sides are not exactly equidistant, the kite is hard to control.

Empty lattais in storage, awaiting razor-sharp maanja.

Then, your kite was ready to do battle. To launch your kite into the sky and search for an opponent, you had to tie the cotton harness, or kunni, securely to your "maanja". This was crucial to your success. Maanja has to be bought from kite shops. It is brightly coloured thread that had been treated with glue, finely-ground glass and dye. The sharper your maanja, the greater your chances of success in a mid-air battle.

The "kite shop man" would skilfully unwind a length of maanja from a lattai - after you had chosen what colour you wanted. He would wrap it switfly - and deftly in an elongated figure-eight between the exteded thumb and little finger of his hand. Maanja, surprisingly enough, was never measured. The kite shop men knew exactly how much to give you - and you accepted their judgement on pure trust.
Moisture, however, is a death threat to maanja. When I was a kid, the good kite shops would sell you maanja and hand it over to you like some sacred weapon, wrapped in newspaper, to prevent the moisture from your palms neutralising what was literally and metaphorically its cutting edge.

The maanja had to be hooked through and tied securely onto the loop of the kunni, or cotton cord. The kite was then ready for battle.

Commercial reality: advertising on a lattai.

But kite-flying brought a wonderful expression to Anglo-Indian English. Remember how I told you that the kite's thread harness was called a "kunni"? Well, the inimitable expression "putting on kunni" was and still is a damning label for anyone who tried putting on airs and graces. It's an expression I haven't used in about twenty years. Maybe I'll include it in my next novel.

For the home of ABC Wednesday, go to Mrs Nesbitt's Place.

43 comments:

Katney said...

Kite battles! A side of you I hadn't yet seen. Some people just fly them to fly them. Wow!

Paulie said...

What an interesting background in kites. . . thanks for sharing! I, too, have kites as my post on a different slant.

Anne-Berit said...

Interesting K-post,very good:o)

Nessa said...

You find the most neatest stuff.

We used to crash our kites into the ground, but not on purpose.

Lana Gramlich said...

I've always loved kite flying. Thanks for bringing back very happy memories. :) Lovely photos, as usual!

Rosie said...

A fasinating post David. I love the part about all kids being equal when it came to kite flying.

RuneE said...

Fascinating! I come from a country where the amount of wind is no problem (quite the contrary usually), yet I never could acquire the art of kite-flying. This was much to the sorrow of my children later on.

Maybe if I followed your manual, I could do it.

Daryl E said...

Ah .. I took a break from supervising the packing (per my chiropractors strict orders) and truly enjoyed learning about your childhood AND kiting.. here in the States kiting means writing a bad check!

CrazyCath said...

David that is such a wonderful account! A real educational visit for me. We too flew kites as children, and I remember the exhilaration at getting them to glide and dip. It was always just a pass-time. Never competitive to us. Your post sure brought back some fond memories!

Strange how we learn lessons from our childhood that we hadn't realised we were learning at the time isn't it?

Great post.

Mushy said...

Very interesting material...the stack of kites reminded me of the old floppy disks...for some reason.

I like it.

Cuckoo said...

Hi David,

Awesome post I must say.
I am amazed at your usage of typical Indian words like maanja & kunni.

I know I know your childhood was spent in India but you always fascinate me by your memory & style of recollecting things.
What we Indians take for granted, you make them so important.

Thanks once again.

John said...

Very fasinating post David! Great work as always.

Paulie said...

In reply to a comment on my blog from you . . . no, it's not a red lobster behind the kids but a Coast Guard buoy -- actually several.

Jo Beaufoix said...

I love that you have so much interesting stuff in your life. Brill post David. :D

Cowgirl said...

I love these little snippets about your childhood, David. What an interesting read it was, and the pics as ever, great. Don't keep us waiting tooooo long for that next book!

imac said...

I guess this is the best K post ive seen David.
love the shots and info.

come visit and see mine

Maggie May said...

That was a lovely post. I have always enjoyed kite flying. Like the photos too.

Dave Coulter said...

Gosh, I wonder if they even sell paper kites here in the States anymore?

My folks brought home a paper kite for me from the Texaco gas station. I must have been 5 or 6. It was some kind of promotion. I remember getting that kite waaaaay up there before the string broke and away it went!

(I think I remember it because it had a giant (Texaco) star pattern on it, lol. Talk about marketing to kids!)

I remember making a tail out of rags, and the weight had to be just right for it to fly.

Then they switched over to plastic, tail-less, bat-shaped kites that were supposed to be an improvement over the paper ones.

I'm not so sure about that. Paper kites, rag tails, wind (and trees!) are great teachers of the meaning of "trial and error" :)

Akelamalu said...

That was fascinating David! We used to take the boys to the seaside to fly kites when they were young - such fun. :)

mrsnesbitt said...

Yes airs and graces!

Great stuff Daid. Delivered with commitment as always.
Great to have you aboard!
Dxx

Belle in Bloom said...

So beautiful. I especially love, "But when it came to kite-flying season, every kid was equal." In our town, it's baseball.
Huck and Finn said "Hey" to you! :)

Diana said...

The kites were great! excellent story

Helena said...

Oooooo beautiful kites! Origianl way of presenting them!

Momma said...

Wow, that post brought back memories. I remember ogling those beautiful, more expensive kites at the toy store. Of course, we usually got the cheap-o ones because my mom saw kites as a frivolous expense and wasn't going to waste money on a pricier one.

Of course, where I lived in the Houston suburbs, there weren't any nice hills and no real wind. But when we moved to Kitty Hawk, NC, I got to enjoy some of the most beautiful kites in the world being flown atop Jockey's Ridge. Nice.

Peace - D

Jan said...

I have the pleasure of living next door to my parents. We were just talking about having a big hot dog roast out back and then flying kites in the field. Now after reading this, I am on it. That was a really nice sentimental post. We have almost lost the art of simple pleasures such as flying kites.

Sharon said...

Very interesting description of the kite flying of your childhood! I enjoyed reading it. A great K post.

I recently read "The Kite Runner." The kite battles described there sounded much like those you described. Have you read that book?

lime said...

oh this was wonderful. thank you for the primer on a proper kite and the special childhood memories. i love that kite flying was the great equalizing sport!

dot said...

How interesting! Over here you very seldom see a kite in the sky any more. I always wanted to fly one but never could get it to take off.
You've probably heard the expression we use when we get tired of someone "Go fly a kite"!
Thanks for mentioning my bird shots on your post of the day!

Neva said...

A very thoughtful post...and what a kite lesson!

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't know if anyone else has ever done this. but I used to hook my kites on my fishing rod line and it sure made them easier to pull in and let out line.

quilly said...

I loved this post! I didn't even know I was interested in learning more about kites until I started reading ....

Merisi said...

Beautifully told story, David, with pictures that are brilliant.
Have you heard about the novel "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, an American born in Afghanistan, about a well-to-do Afghan boy, and Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant? Kites and "kite running", Hassan being the runner, play a central role in the story.

Mima said...

Another wonderful story from your childhood, the kite flying stories a lovely, I would have no idea how to go about putting a kite together, so that was fascinating. Love the pictures that went with it too!

Shrinky said...

I've never heard of kite battles before - how exciting!

Digital Flower Pictures said...

That brings back some memories. What great color on the first shot.

shooting star said...

i have nice childhood memories of kite flying on our terrace....funny some simple thigns bring out equality !!!

Kim said...

Great post and great story. Isn't it amazing how simple things can bring kids together.

holly said...

i am very good at a lot of things. okay. i'm pretty good at some things.
okay. there's something somewhere that i'm good at.

but of all the conceivable things i can do...kite flying has eluded me.

my dad? awesome kite flyer.

he never let me have those genes. or, the string of a flying kite. he's not getting *the best* room in *the home*.

ExpatKat said...

Great pics as ever David. Have always loved kite-flying. Many a humorous tale to tell on this subject!

Dragonstar said...

I don't know why I never visited you on Wednesday - my week has been out of kilter for some reason.

I thoroughly enjoyed your description of kite-flying in your book, so it's great to see such clear photos to illustrate the event. Thank you.

Amrita said...

Catching up with your posts. Due to costly Internet I have to limit my browsing. Great post. The kites are wonderful

Anonymous said...

Couldn't resist writing a comment on this post which brings back nostalgic memories of FALLING KITES that wafted overhead. We'd wait with baited breath, praying that one would fall on our terrace/roof. The players were never seen by us, but we shared the joy of the winner and the sadness felt by the loser. The biggest battles were fought on Biswakarma Puja Day in India.

Thanks again, David, for reviving these memories with the brilliant kaleidoscopic colours of your pictures.

Rene.

Indrani said...

I have flown kites too... an exhilarating experience. Kunni, maanja all sound like tinkle of bells to the ear. I haven't heard of "putting on kunni" though. I grew up in south India so not quite familiar with some of those sayings.