A Dot in the Sky

by Vineet Gill

It was the wind. The bloody wind was giving Binny such trouble this evening. "No wind today!" he shouted across the terrace to an exasperated Monu, who'd had enough, and whose arms really hurt. Monu, for the past ten minutes or so was playing Binny's "second" � he had been holding the kite above his head with both hands, as Binny held the line at the other end. Monu's brief was simple � hold the kite spine-up; wait for Binny's "Okay!"; fling it as far up as possible; maybe jump for extra momentum. This makes the flier's job easier as he pulls hard at the line, releasing and pulling with staccato jerks of the hand, until the kite takes wing and ascends to great, comforting heights.

"No wind blowing today," Binny repeated after the tri-coloured kite – saffron, white and green – went only a short distance up, and at the first pull of the string fell limply back to the ground.

"The hell with you," Monu shouted back. "I am not doing it anymore."

He knew Binny well, Binny the bigmouth idiot, the goddamn fool. He had known Binny for some years now. Four, five? They played cricket together down in the yard. And the seasonal lull between summertime and monsoon was given to kite flying, so here they were.

Apart from these unimportant leisurely concerns, and despite the fact that they lived next to each other, there were hardly any signs of camaraderie between the two. Monu had his real friends, his only friends, in school, and among that lot, at least two were categorized as "best friends." Binny, on the other hand, went to another school, a government school for all Monu knew. If you'd asked Monu whether Binny was his friend, he would have instantly denied the charge, even laughed at such a conjecture.

Some evenings, Binny, still in his school uniform with the unwashed shirt untucked, came over to Monu's house. When this happened, only reluctantly did Monu agree to a spot of cricket. For he had to have something to do during those free hours before the tuition classes, dinner and TV, and then finally bedtime. Though the same age, Binny was taller, and given to crude assertions of superiority; he put on such airs that it made him insufferable at times. Why should he get to bat first, for instance, when for a fair decision all they needed was a toss of a coin? Binny invariably claimed that he didn't have any coins with him, and when Monu offered to get one, he would mouth some let's-not-waste-any-more-time-for-god's-sake-the-sun-is-about-to-set nonsense. Never argumentative, Monu would go quietly to the bowler's end for an abnormally long run-up and attempt to throw a bouncer or something similarly retributive.

There was also this matter of Binny's utter lack of refinement. Take his batting stance, for instance, and shot selection. Compare it to Monu's textbook posture when he defends the ball on the front foot, bat and leg together, the elbow raised high, the head ducked, eyes still at the point where the ball had hit the bat several moments before. Binny didn't even have this shot in his severely limited repertoire. Indiscriminate baseball swings were more his style. Still, this was also the reason why he always scored more than Monu. But this was not all. Binny's obtuseness was as evident when he was batting as when he was not, so to speak.

His height at his age, this premature bloom, made Binny look comically thin and lanky. Monu, though at times insecure about his own physical smallness, was at least convinced that his was punctual, medically-correct growth. So when Binny, over some minor disagreement, pushed Monu, or when he pulled Monu's hair with one hand and slapped his face tight with the other, Monu didn't quite respond. It was only a matter of time, he thought with tearful eyes, before he outgrew his oppressor. And then he would repay this brute in kind.

After such set-tos, Monu typically resolved never to see Binny again. But then the offer to fly kites would arrive. Binny was his only connection with the world of kite flying. His friends at school were useless at this activity, they had other passions. Flying a kite was too old-city for them. While Binny, with a line of manjha in his hands, was old-city incarnate and a master of kites: flier; fighter; runner… he had done it all.

On the terrace among his kites, Binny spent hours, whole evenings, and sometimes even nights, when he had plastic lamps to attach to the string to guide him in the dark sky. He leapt at every kite-flying opportunity, skipping steps on the staircase going toward the fourth-floor terrace. While Binny didn't own a bat or even a plastic ball, his spool of manjha – a charkhee as he called it – was a much prized object.

For the combat of the kites, inevitable in this teeming, dotted August sky, Binny needed the manjha, the best of all varieties to cut off the rival lines. And saddi – string composed of pure cotton – was useful for the long haul, when a kite went up and up, attaining unthinkable heights, and kept going still. One held the soft white string, and let it slip rapidly between thumb and index finger.

Once Binny offered Monu one such impossibly hung kite, far off, small enough to be a mere dot in the sky. Nervously, he took the line, rising up in a curve, and felt a slight, sudden heaviness in his arms, as though the kite was taking charge of him and not the other way around. Then he felt a thrill that great heights and balancing acts can induce. All he wanted was to stay still and silent, attached just so to this almost-vertical, almost-stationary kite.

"Let it go," Binny ordered.

And Monu felt the rapid slip of the string between his fingers like a thrill; he saw the curve of the string slackening; and the kite beginning to float free and dip.

"Pull, pull, pull," came Binny's voice, but too late for Monu to salvage the drop, and they both noticed the obvious signs of a kite gone bad: the rapid swivels it makes around its axis, incomplete spirals it traces before the fall far out among the power cables or telephone lines.

Slowly, Monu acquired a taste for flying kites, and through this, unavoidably, for Binny. Being connected to a dot in the sky through a cotton line gave him a thrill unparalleled by the glare of video games or the hard-earned honours of a cricket match. But unlike Binny, he was impatient with competitive kite flying, or kite fights: the aerial equivalent of cockfights. Even collecting stray kites with their lines cut off – spoils of some remote battle – didn't appeal much to Monu, as it did to Binny, who vaulted brick walls with glass bits on top, climbed over high water tanks, ran along busy roads, only so he could get hold of a passing kite, even when he didn't need it.

Tactical, persevering, tolerating, Monu waited for this juvenile sport to end; for Binny to get past this business of collecting or cutting other kites, and launch the last kite of the day in whatever direction the wind blew. He waited for Binny to get the kite sky-borne, and pass the line to him. Then they would not talk, and all the ambient noises, even the screams of the pigeon-fliers around guiding their flocks back home, would subside; subside at least to Monu's ears, tuned right up there, where his eyes would try hard to stay focused. Every sound drowned and each vision was displaced by that one dot. No other feeling seemed as worth having as this.

Nothing irritated him more, during these few minutes of rapture, than Binny's impatient demands to pack up for the day.

"Let's leave then," Binny would say. "I'll get it down." He would grab the line from above Monu's head and pull the kite down.

Most of the time, Monu, with the accusing silence of a martyr, let him have his way. But occasionally he burst out. "No, there's still light yet," Monu would snap. Or, more fiercely, "Give it back!"

"But you're not flying it," Binny responded with a slap on Monu's head. "Don't hold it. Fly it! You're just there. Holding it. Fly it!" Binny demonstrated with quick movements of his right hand, longer pulls of the arm, and lastly, the bring-it-home intensity of the two-armed pull, like a fisherman at work.

One evening, sick of being pushed around, Monu tried going it alone. He bought his own spool of line, went to the fourth-floor terrace and started with the preliminaries. One end of the spool fixed under a brick, so it diagonally pointed, with the other tip, straight at the hands that controlled the kite. Check. The bridle of the kite, not the best of the knots but workable. Check. He even doctor-taped his fingertips just like Binny used to do, even though there was no manjha to fly with. Still. Check. If he smoked like Binny, he could have lit one up and burnt a few holes in the body of the kite for "extra stability in extra wind."

But getting the thing to fly proved close to impossible. He tried imitating the pre-flight moves of Binny's, legs slightly apart, and attempted to send the kite dancing into the air, like a clumsy bird somehow managing to fly. But nothing worked, and the kite remained grounded. Monu longed for Binny to be there.

He went to Binny's little room, in which his whole family lived. "Is Binny home?" he asked a woman that he assumed was Binny's mother.

"Yes," she said. She kept where she was, blocking the door and staring at Monu.

Sensing that she was not going to do the needful until he spelt it out, Monu asked, "Can you call him?"

"You know that he's failed his exams?" she said with undisguised contempt.

"I am sorry he did."

"Thanks to friends like you, he failed!"

"He's not my friend," Monu replied haughtily and walked away.

He knew the kind of family Binny came from. Once he had asked Binny about his father's profession. "Government servant," Binny replied. Although it was common knowledge that Binny's father was a watchman at a government building, Monu was only testing him. He now suspected that Binny, to save face, was lying to his parents and presenting Monu in a bad light. Later that day, Monu's suspicion was confirmed when Binny's mother came over with the complaint to Monu's parents. When his father confronted him with this, Monu couldn't help laughing with disbelief at the allegation. It was only later he felt aggrieved and betrayed. Later, he felt like crying.

Barely a week had passed, when on a particularly windless day, at about three in the afternoon, there came Binny's characteristic single knock on the door.

Monu couldn't believe it. The bastard backstabber back so soon! Once again, he had resolved to say "No, I am not coming," or something similar. He opened the door barefoot to see Binny smiling; not a smile of remorse or guilt, just the mindless grin of an unscrupulous fool.

Before Monu could speak, Binny seized him by the hand and ran with him toward the staircase.

Monu could express his outrage only through the feeble twists and turns of his wrist, firmly in Binny's superior grip.

As they climbed the flight of stairs going toward the terrace, Monu fearfully thought of hitting his tormentor from behind. But this was out of the question. One doesn't hit a bigger person. Bigger and undoubtedly stronger. Perhaps it was best to go with the flow and then, when there was some distance between them, raise an alarm for help?

They stepped out onto the terrace and Binny pointed straight ahead. A fresh stack of paper kites leaned against the boundary wall. Next to it were two shining-new spools of line.

"What do you think?" Binny asked. When Monu refused to respond, Binny handed him the ready kite, and whacked him softly at the back of his head to tell him to get in position for the upwards fling.

After multiple kites failed to take off, Binny said, "No wind blowing today."

Monu, still angry, decided to break his reticence and answer back. "The hell with you. I am not doing it anymore."

Binny ignored him and looked around intently for something. "We're going up there," he said. He pointed to the highest point of the building, the roof of what looked like a single room with a wooden door but was actually the stairwell opening onto the fourth-floor terrace.

Monu was not getting up there, not today, not in a million years. First, it was a tedious clamber up. You had to practically chin-up and drag your way onto it. Second, it was dangerous.

"I am not. I am going home," Monu said and ran for the stairs.

Binny grabbed him by the collars.

"The hell with you," Monu said. He was on the verge of weeping. "I am going home." And then, softly, "I have homework."

"You can do your homework later," Binny said, and swooped Monu aloft holding him by the waist. "Get…up…"

The stairwell's roof had no boundary walls around it. Whenever Monu was made to climb atop this little cube, he could never make himself stand up, owing to the dizziness that came over him. The distance between the terrace and the stairwell roof wasn't much – just a little over Binny's height. Monu's vertigo was triggered by the rear edge of the roof. By the mere idea of it: there was no need to see anything, it was enough to have known that this edge was where the building abruptly ended; that from this point on, there only stood a horrifying vertical of nothingness connecting this hard surface to the next, which was the road more than four-stories below. Monu never stood on this roof. He preferred crouching low.

"Here." Binny handed him the bridled kite, and threw one of the spools at him. It rolled toward the rear end, but stopped near the edge.

Monu, sitting hunched over, didn't go near it.

"Easier to fly from here," Binny said, after he expertly ascended the roof.       "The place should be high enough, you know."

Monu held up the kite, flung it, and away it went in a flurry, making papery, riffling noises. As was usually the case, Binny was quiet all through, focusing on the movements of the kite, and his own positioning with respect to it. When it had reached a decent height, Binny relaxed a little and his foot-work became more carefree. "Oye, look!" he shouted.

There was another kite above, being flown from somewhere up ahead. It swooped below Binny's line, which connected to a kite held aloft not by the wind but by the persistent workmanship of Binny's wrist. "I know what's he doing," Binny said, fiercely pulling back his line to bring the kite at a level with the new rival. "He thinks he'll cut me from below." This new challenge thrown at him in the open arena of the afternoon sky agitated him. Challenge accepted, he seemed to say with his body, his fisherman arms working at the line: "Challenge accepted!" His feet moved as unconsciously calculating as a batsman's should right before he meets the ball.

Monu was not looking up at the two kites. For a long while he had kept his head down, looking at Binny. Minutely, he had followed Binny's movements. Binny's back bending and unbending. Binny's feet, shifting, shifting, backwards, rearwards. In Monu's calculation, exactly two steps remained between Binny and the rear edge of the roof.

Binny stopped moving, looked at Monu, and winked. "Look up there," he said.

Monu glanced and saw that Binny had won the fight; the rival kite was vanquished and afloat. But he looked back to Binny's feet, as one rearward step after the other Binny reached the edge of the roof, and suddenly disappeared.

There was only a sound as though of a hiccup.

Monu sobbed without tears. He went to the front edge of the roof and looked at the terrace stretching below. The stack of kites leaned against the boundary wall; a spool roamed free on the floor. The afternoon sky was losing its brilliance with the sun beginning to slowly dip toward the west. A flock of pigeons circled above, soon to descend. New kites were still coming up, and the highest of all was one lone dot in the sky, barely moving. Sitting on the roof, Monu looked at that dot, imagining its line in his hands.

BIO: Vineet Gill lives in Delhi and dabbles in the trade of the fiction writer. He was trained as an engineer when much younger, which is the only thing he so far shares with Fyodor Dostoevsky, who, incidentally, was also a writer of fictions.