Grandpa’s house was on a hillside. While it offered panoramic views of the surrounding areas, not all that was in view was magnificent. The hill across from us was steep and largely uninhabited. Those who did live there lived so precariously. Instead of the fine half acre lots on Grandpa’s side of the hill, the homes on the other hill were merely corrugated tin shacks that hung ever so close to disaster on the steep slopes. The families that lived there were squatters, and we were told never to wander over to the other hill. The warning did not really have to be given. For between the two hills running along the valley floor, a two lane street with a divided median more than symbolically divided the two living areas.
More than once during the summer monsoons with the accompanying heavy rains, the after effects aside from a solid drenching was the sight of landslides and tragedy. It was merely a glance away. Like the familiar story of the spider weaving its web, these rugged dwellers would be seen rebuilding. The side of the story that is not mentioned but implied is that the spider lived to rebuild. How often as children have we deliberately destroyed the meticulous work of the eight legged creature only to find later that the spider wove no new web. Maybe they moved on to a new location, or maybe they succumbed to our innocent mischief. The rebuilding would always take place it seemed. But I remember the times where it began only after the pause of grieving relatives and friends, and after the simple funerals and burials had taken place.
As in any neighborhood, that hill had their share of children. And children no matter where they lived always liked to play. We never had a chance to play together with them, but we could see them play and they could see us. The games were the same and the smiles on the faces were the same. I often thought of the fun and excitement it would be if all of us could play together.
During the fall when the breeze was brisk and the humid heavy air from the moist tropical winds lifted, I would long to fly my kite. Before that could be done, I had to adjust and customize my kite. These were not fancy kites but simple diamond kites made with crepe paper wrapped over the sinews from the skin of the bamboo bark that formed the familiar cross shaped backbone. The crepe paper would be glued onto itself after wrapping itself over this flexible but sturdy frame. The glue was simply cooked rice kernels that was mashed into a paste. We always volunteered to help on this part. Though it was messy for our parents, it was simply delightful for us. Our fingers would be covered with paste by the time the rice kernels were transformed into the glue. Of course it tasted good too, and cleaning off our hands simply meant licking our fingers as if they were popsicles. Here is an early example of non toxic glue.
After the paste was prepared, it was time to make the tail. This was done by cutting strips from the newspaper. The longer the tail, the more likely it was to tear in flight. But what a victorious sight it was with the kites airborne with the long trailing tails. The strips of newspapers like the crepe paper were glued together by the magic qualities of the paste. The string that was used for controlling the kites was a brittle string called appropriately by the name “glass strings”. Not only was it brittle but also sharp. We never held our kite by the string or it would easily cut into our flesh. Instead we would wrap the string onto small wooden ruler like planks where the end would be shaped by a knife into a concave indentation. Then the string would be wrapped length wise over this home made spool.
Once all the preparation was finished, all that awaited us was the luck of the wind. When the weather was right, I would take my kite to the crest of our hill to launch it into the sky. After the normal few tries and the customary arguments of whose turn it was to hold the kite verses the spool, the kite would soar into the air with the trailing tail. In the air the tail transformed itself from crepe paper and newspaper strips cut and glued together by rice paste into a graceful performer of loops and curls. The glass string would glisten against the blue sky at certain angles and the kite and its dancing follower would rise so majestically and stay suspended as did our imaginations. Sometimes a game we used to play was to see whose kite could tangle and cut off part of the opponents tail when the kites and strings crossed paths. Sometimes if one were lucky the opponents kite would be severed from their masters’ spool. A complete victory or a humiliating defeat depended on whether ones glass string would be stronger while the two strings collided in mid air. Just as often, both kites would fall helplessly, while at other times the duels would continue without a victor.
Across the other hill, the children there probably built the kites the same way and waited as impatiently for the right weather. Sometimes I knew it was time to launch my kite because the children on the other side would already have theirs in the air. Their kites too had the long graceful tails. I could see their kites from my bedroom window. They probably could feel the winds in theirs. After the customary tries, my kite would soar. Then the kites would meet in the same blue sky. On some rare occasions, the winds would bring the kites together even though the launch points were across from each other. During those moments, our strings would cross and the children on the two hills would meet and soar together.