A Victim of its Own Success, Kite Flying Festival Considers Future Options

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Photos: Jawahar Malhotra and Vanshika Vipin

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: The weather couldn’t have been better. After two weeks of being boxed inside their homes while rain and a cold Artic blast engulfed the area, two days of sunshine drove people outside by the thousands to attend the Makar Sankranti kite flying festival at George Bush Park on the city’s western fringe. That was just the beginning of a long, and for some tedious, day for many who ventured out there.

The festival has been arranged by the local chapter of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for the past 20 years to mark the end of winter and the beginning of the Hindu month of Magh Sangrand. In northern India, it is usually accompanied by a kite flying festival since the days are bright with sunshine and gentle breezes. All across cities many of young body and heart take to the fields, parks and rooftops to let loose with high flying kites. In the ensuing kite fights and those that are wind-torn, these fluttering birds and falling yards of manja – the starched strings used to guide them –  drift to the ground and get entangled in anything that sticks up. It’s not uncommon to see remnants of past kite flying festivals on poles, electrical lines, trees and even buildings months and years later in India.

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This same situation is not completely unexpected at the event held in Bush Park each year but has been handled in the past without any problem. But this past weekend, on Sunday, January 18, the park was overwhelmed as an estimated 5,500 people showed up, much to the organizer’s pleasant surprise.  But the park and adjacent parking is only designed for about 1,000 people.

“The festival has been growing each year, but in the past three years we have seen more people participating,” said Girish Naik, President of the VHP. “Each year, we have been contracting another off-duty police officer for the event, and this year we had 18, which is our biggest expense,” he added of the festival which is free to the public. The VHP makes some money, but not enough to cover costs, from kite and string-spool sales as well as tea and khichiddi, a typical dish eaten to mark the new month. “But, now people are bringing their own kites, strings and food, so we don’t make much money,” Naik lamented. “For them, it’s a big picnic!”

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The festival is the VHP’s signature local event, so they were certainly pleased with the turnout. But, the lack of parking forced many people to drive around in circles for hours. Some who parked at the Kroger at Westheimer Parkway and others to distant lots walked half a mile to get to the site. Others parked on the grass and were towed away. What’s worse is that, when some of them arrived, they heard an announcement that the festival was being closed down around 2 pm due to too many people in the park! The VHP had two buses ferrying people from a distant high school, but these were caught up in the huge traffic jam.

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What happened next gave the organizers – and our desi community – a black eye. Being Martin Luther King’s Birthday, the next day was a holiday for schoolkids and some families came to the park to play, only to find it was overrun with torn kites, string and leftover plastic bottles, juice boxes and food from the day before. Their complaints made the 6pm news on KHOU TV Channel 11 and Fox News Channel 26, which featured comments from Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Naik.  Caught red-faced, Naik and a group of 18 volunteers spent the entire next day, Tuesday, cleaning up the mess.

Said a shaken Naik, “We were taken aback by the callous way that our people threw trash around and disregarded basic cleanliness, leaving the park in such a mess. The Commissioner was naturally upset, but the County did help us clean up next day.” And now, the VHP is reconsidering their options for next year’s festival – where and which shape it may take, and how to better handle traffic and parking. It’s a nice problem to have, but they aren’t sure how to convince people to keep the site clean. Ironically, this echoes the same frustration that people experience in India and that the Modi government there is dealing with. Could it be that you can take a desi out of the country but, you can’t take the country out of the desi?!