Fighting Kites Back in Kolkata Skies Trail Deadly Stings
If they get hurt they will say 'yes, this is what I want'
KOLKATA: Palash Das has managed to sell about a third of his kites this year. “Usually I get more sales, and have to source kites from other kite-makers sometimes. But still it is better than last year.”
Das manages a newspaper and tea stand in South Kolkata, and has been for 15 years. He adapts his wares to the time of year. “When Holi comes around we sell gulaal and water balloons, at Diwali we will source firecrackers and lights,” he says.
This time of year, Vishwakumar Puja brings up an annual concern for the Kolkata Police. Outside of the celebrations that last 2-3 days, the days before and after the festival leave the police preventing and dealing with kite-related accidents.
“See, people will not buy the manja [kite-string] if it isn’t a little sharp. We do not sell the Chinese stuff, but if our manja is just string, no serious kite flyer will buy it,” Das explains.
“The customers will unspool the thread and check it up close, to see if it meets their requirement. They hold it taut and touch it with their finger. If they get hurt they will say ‘yes, this is what I want.”
“This is our business. We try, we follow the rules,” he says.
The festival is very popular among local labourers and transportation workers.
“We collect money from households in the neighbourhood with the help of the local clubs and put up a small pandal every year,” says Shibu, as he recalls this year’s festivities.
“We had been looking forward to it because we know we won’t really be able to enjoy Durga Puja with all the restrictions. We rikshaw pullers party during Vishwakarma Puja more than at Durga Puja - we are always on duty at that time.”
While they buy kites only to decorate their pandals, Shibu agrees “it is risky for those of us who drive open vehicles. Here the buildings are mostly low so people don’t fly kites. But in areas with more tall buildings, rikshaw pullers have met with accidents too.”
During Vishwakarma Puja the skies fill up with mutlicoloured kites, and rooftops are spotted with competitors who team up in twos - one to steer the kite, and another to manage the spool - children and adults alike, engaging in kite fights.
The manjas are typically and traditionally made with cotton thread and laced with crushed glass, so they better cut off the strings of a rival kite to eliminate it from a competition.
For pedestrians and riders, however, the string on the manja is made very fine, and is often hard to spot even at a close distance. Many have walked or ridden straight into these powdered glass laced strings which hang at ground level, badly hurting themselves.
It is also common to see birds get injured or tangled in these strings during this time of year.
This year the Kolkata Police took active measures to counter these kite related accidents.
“We held briefings for all officers and constables at the Lalbazar Police Station and surrounding stations as well,” says DCP for South Kolkata Akash Magharia.
He says these are the areas most popular for fighting kites. “They also see most of these accidents. We get less such reports from other areas, but every station is aware of this risk around Vishwakarma Puja.”
Arnab Gupta, 22, a regular kite flyer when Vishwakarma Puja rolls around, recalls seeing a man admitted to hospital after hurting himself two years ago.
“I think this man was not from this area,” he says. “Everybody in our building is careful on these days. Some aunties will put the plants indoors so that the manja does not get tangled in the leaves when it falls.”
The man was on his cycle and was watching his phone at the time, and failed to notice the broken manja string that had draped itself across two balconies across from each other.
“He came straight and the string caught him exactly on the nose. He fell down and there was a cut right across his face. People around rushed him to the hospital because the string could be dirty, and definitely had glass particles. Or else he would not be bleeding the way he was.”
He points out proudly that it was the year his kite was second-last still standing out of the 11 that started out competing.
There were a number of similar accidents in Kolkata this year, where bikers or cyclists rode at speed into a loop of kite string and suffered serious injuries thereafter.
Police say this is why, during the puja, they had plans to use surveillance drones over the Maa flyover and connecting flyovers.
Police do not monitor whether kite-sellers are selling the safer kind of string. It was in 2017 that the National Green Tribunal declared a countrywide ban on the life-threatening nylon and glass laced strings. Since then, states like Maharashtra have seen a growing number of bird deaths after a surge in kite-flying when the pandemic restrictions were eased.
And in Kolkata, police in Nadia had to arrest a group of seven kite flyers after repeated incidents of people suffering deep gashes from the strings in the area. Vidyasagar Setu alone saw three such accidents this year.
Each year a wholesale kite market is set up in Jadavpur in anticipation of Vishwakarma Puja. Many shops around Kolkata - Tollygunge, some parts of Salt Lake, Topsia report getting their stocks in advance from the sellers at Jadavpur market.
“It is traditional and competitive at the same time, kite flying. And to win you need sharp strings. This is the problem,” says Arnab Gupta.
For many people kite flying is fun because it is competitive, he explains. “They will not come out to fly the kite if there are no other kites out that day.”
Given the risk, is he willing to give up on the sport?
“I do not know if even I could get used to it. I like flying and cutting the strings on other kites. But I also don’t want to be responsible for someone ending up in the hospital.. So maybe I would.”