Basant (ba-SANT), as explained in the small glossary at the front of this book, is a spring kite festival celebrated all across South Asia. The origins of the festival are described in more depth at the end of the book.
The story takes place in Lahore, in the Punjab Province in Pakistan. Malik is a young boy, wheelchair bound (this is only shown in illustrations but never mentioned), who aspires to be “King of Basant” by being the best kite fighter, and especially, by beating the bully next door.
The story follows the exploits of Malik as he catches all the other kites with his swift kite named Falcon, including the kite owned by the bully that Malik calls “Goliath.” Goliath may be big, but Malik built Falcon for speed, and of course Malik succeeds in becoming a “king” for a day.
At the end of the day, “One by one the stars come out till they shine down like a million jeweled kites.” Malik’s day as “King” is over, but tomorrow, he plans to start work on an even better kite for next year.
The collage illustrations by Christiane Krömer reveal the extent to which the artist researched the city of Lahore with its distinctive arches and skyline. She does an excellent job adding interest to the monochromatic city scenes by alternating textures, as well as including bright colorful kites on every page.
Discussion: Many readers will remember the story of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini which is centered around kite competition in Afghanistan, banned by the Taliban in 1999, and which features a much worse bully than would be appropriate for a children’s book. But Pakistan has also had problems with kite flying. Only one sentence at the end of the book hints at any problems with the kite festival:
“In recent years, kite flying and the celebration of Basant in Lahore were banned for safety reasons and for security concerns due to orthodox religious opposition. But in 2013 the festival returned, hopefully for good.”
Given the intense symbolism the festival has acquired, it might have made sense to include more background on it in the book. (Also, the festival did not end up taking place in 2013.)
Basant was banned in Lahore from 2007 through 2012, ostensibly for safety reasons, which are in fact a problem. Some people tie glass and metal to their strings to help them cut the strings of competitors. This practice has resulted in horrible accidents and even some deaths. But according to the New York Times, the ban on the festival was probably due more to the local authority’s inability to provide security against Islamic extremist groups that challenge the celebration. In 2013, for example, the festival was expected to be restored:
“But then Jamaat ud Dawa — the charitable front of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group accused of masterminding terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 — warned against holding Basant celebrations, implicitly threatening attacks, on the grounds that the festival has “Hindu origins” and so is un-Islamic. The police said they could not guarantee public safety during the event, and [Lahore] was forced to abandon the project.”
Nevertheless, the festival remains in demand for a number of reasons, not least of which is the boost it provides the economy. Over the years, thousands of tourists have come to Lahore for the festival, filling the hotels and restaurants, and paying top prices to locals for spots on their rooftops.
The competition actually did take place in 2014, but despite prohibitions on the sale and use of metal twine, several people got injured from the wire as well as from stray bullets fired by jubilant kite flyers.
What would be appropriate for children in this regard? One issue for discussion could be the way in which games and other seemingly non-political activities often play an important role in expressing nationalist and/or religious identity. Children can learn about the revolutionary role of singing in Estonia and the chauvinistic soccer mania in Europe and now on the rise in the U.S. More relevant to this book, the conflict over whether or not to permit kite flying competitions can open the way to discuss the religious strife between Hindus and Muslims, the internecine battles within religions, and the repercussions for the rest of the world. Children could also talk about the issue of fairness in competition (such as the practice of using glass or metal strings versus regular twine).
Evaluation: I love the way the main character’s disability is just there, and not mentioned. Malik is written as just a kid like any other, with the same concerns and passions as other kids. (In Khan’s previous book, Big Red Lollipop, she used a similar tactic to feature a Pakistani family in a plot that was only about sibling rivalry and character development.)
Published by Lee & Low Books, 2014