While Manmohan Singh gave his sombre Independence Day speech at Red Fort, Alys Francis decided to keep her day free like most Delhiites – and fly kites.
I’m standing on the rooftop of a seven-storey hotel squinting upwards, searching the sky, my fingers gripping a piece of string that rises up to the hot, bruised clouds above Delhi.
Somewhere up there is my kite but I’ve lost site of it and this is dangerous.
It’s the biggest kite-flying day of the year in Delhi: Independence Day, and I’m surrounded on all sides by other kites, yellow, purple, red, pink and shiny silver, all reined in by near invisible lines of string.
These are not the kites of my childhood, growing up on the outskirts of Melbourne’s suburbs, where safety standards beat buildings into a uniform submission and playgrounds are vetted, fenced and padded with cushiony woodchips.
I’m used to huge fabric kites, launched from a hill on a windy day. The aim of the game is just to keep the kite flying, then, on realising how boring this is, you go home and pack the kites into the bottom of the cupboard where they will grow dusty until the next windy day, by which time you will have forgotten about the dullness of kite flying.
But I’m not in Melbourne anymore and the string sluicing the sky above my head is not the string of my childhood. It’s Delhi string, string that could kill a man, and does, fairly regularly, take down birds.
How did I get myself in this situation?
I moved to Delhi to work as a journalist at the start of August. When I told my friends and family I was coming here most seemed shocked and nearly everyone told me I was “brave”.
I don’t really blame them. A girl by herself going to a city that so often hits the headlines for being the rape capital of the world is bound to raise a few eyebrows.
Most Australians who have not lived in India don’t really know much about it, save for dramatic headlines and a few snapshots from the Incredible India tourism campaign. I was determined to find more than that.
I figured India’s Independence Day on 15 August was as good a day as any to begin my hunt through the hidden layers of this city of more than 20 billion souls.
Given Australia still sits under England’s Queen, not quite clutched to the bosom but more forgotten somewhere around the ankles, I have never experienced an Independence Day before.
Not sure what to expect, I asked one of my local friends what Delhiites did on the public holiday.
“The Prime Minister gives a speech at Red Fort,” he told me. That sounded important but dull, I wanted more.
Then I remembered hearing something about being able to see a lot of kites in the sky on Independence Day.
“What about kite flying?” I asked.
“Oh yes, there’ll be loads of that,” he told me.
Indian people love flying kites but the game is not like in the West. Here, the aim is to take down a neighbouring kite by sending your kite careening into its path, the deadly string, laced with acid and glass, cutting your opponent’s string like a guillotine taking off some ancient queen’s head — happy Independence Day.
So here I am, struggling in the sticky, breezeless climate to keep sight of my kite and make sure it stays in the air, let alone out of the path of rivals.
Thankfully my friend doesn’t leave me floundering for very long, stepping in to take control and letting me take in the view.
While many thousands duly went to watch Prime Minister Manomohan Singh use his Independence Day speech as an appeal for a third term for the Congress-led UPA (and more than 1000kms away in Gujarat his not yet entirely official rival Narenda Modi, BJP campaign chief, made his own 50-minute speech challenging the Prime Minister to a public debate without once addressing him by name) it seemed most people are spending the public holiday doing battle in the sky.
On rooftops stretching around as far as the eye can see stand mothers, fathers, tiny young children and groups of young men.
Some rooftops have lush green plants and thick double-bricked edges; others are quite literally just the ceiling slab of the structure below, without even a semblance of a safety barrier to stop the kite flyers toppling to the street.
Because the rooftops are of varying heights and close together,you can never tell where the kites are coming from. Cut kites rain down on us and string webs the ground tripping us up.
Our kite nearly takes out a father on the roof next to us, we smile and wave apologetically and he laughs and waves back.
My experience of playing on a rooftop as a child is based mainly on a scene in the movie Mary Poppins where Jim the chimney sweep takes the children up the chimney, they go jumping across chimney stacks and, through a crazily elaborate dance number, he shows the children how magical a life lived a little outside the rules can be.
We had to act the scene out in our living room because playing on the roof was “too dangerous,” despite the fact that, according to Mary Poppins, it was where the magic happened.
At the end of the day my hands are stained with string dye that’s most likely toxic, I’ve probably absorbed some amount of acid, and I’m drained from sweating half my body weight in the sticky air.
But my cheeks are sore from smiling – there’s nothing quite like the feeling you get after playing the ultimate game of kites with what feels like an entire city, particularly a city as large as this one.
I’m not sure who will be giving the speech from Red Fort on Independence Day next year, but I’m keeping my kite reel and I know what I’ll be doing.