The Trial of Balram
by Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, April 2007
The day almost every kid in the country looked forward to was finally at hand. It was Easter Sunday. The morning sun broke the eastern skies in majestic splendor and beamed its rays through the cracks in Balram's bedroom wall and roused him from slumber. Not that he wanted to sleep in late or laze in bed a little bit longer. He was happy to be roused by nature rays for it promised to be a good day for flying kites and he wanted to enjoy every minute of it.
First on the list, however, was Sunday school. How he wished school was cancelled that Sunday but he knew any such yearning was pure fantasy. His parents were staunch Lutherans and if they took one Christian observance seriously it was Easter. In any event he was happy at least that Good Friday was past and gone. He did not care for Good Friday because for him it was a scary day. Somebody killed Jesus on that day and rumor had it that in the three-day interval between death and resurrection evil spirits will roam the earth and prey upon unsanctified souls. And for reasons he never quite understood his mother did not cook anything besides fish on Good Friday, and he hated fish. To make matters worse he was forbidden to play bumper ball on Good Friday because the old people said that snakes lurked in the bushes on that fateful day. With the outside being dreary and scary he had spent all of Good Friday inside the house organizing his kite making supplies.
The situation was much more relaxed on Saturday and he made the most of it. Early Saturday morning, with overnight dew still on the grass and leaves and the halo of a rising sun barely visible on the horizon, he trekked down to the backdam in Long Pond where gamma cherry trees grew wild and he picked a basket full of green and yellow cherries. The jelly from the ripened cherries was sticky and it provided a cheap but potent alternative to commercial glues, especially for lightweight bonding such as kite paper. In the days leading up to Easter he had used up all his savings to buy kite paper of all shades and colors, as well as two rolls of crochet No.1 and two rolls of crochet No.2 twine, and a 20-foot length of nylon cord for a tail. So when he returned from Long Pond just before noon with his gamma cherries he had all the supplies he needed to make two kites, one for himself and one for Padmini, his little sister.
Balram fashioned the frame for one kite, his sisters kite, from ite pointer, and the other one from pine that his father had fashioned from remnants of an old Pepsi crate. The ite kite was much smaller in size than the box board model (about ten inches tall and eight inches wide). Padmini shadowed his every step and marched foot to foot behind him as he fashioned her kite, giving suggestions which were largely ignored, and rousing his anger by repeatedly asking him when he would be finished. She wanted a red box kite with lots of frills just like she had seen floating over the sea wall but Balram only knew how to make one type of kite the Star Point, and naturally he convinced her that it was the best kite in the world. Carefully he wrapped the twine into the hexagonal shaped frame to produce the shape of a star and then he spliced different colored kite paper into triangles which he pasted with precision to produce an elegant multi-colored star on a white background. After that he added lots of frills to the two sides, a tongue and two ears to produce some music. For a final touch he hooked on the tail and attached a cute red bow to the end of the cord. Padmini was so delighted with her kite she wanted to fly it right away but she too had to show restraint and wait for Easter Sunday.
The kite Balram fashioned for himself was much larger than Padmini's but less intricate in design. Like all adolescent kids he wanted to move away from colored paper, frills and ite frames. So on the three feet high by two feet wide hexagonal box board frame, held in equilibrium by equal lengths of No.2 crochet around the outer edges, he layered brown store paper, so called because it was a cheap but durable paper stock used by shopkeepers to wrap merchandise, but yet light enough to keep a kite airborne. With the same paper he cut quarter-moon shapes for ears, half the size of the ears on Padmini's kite, and carefully glued those unto the upper sides of the frame. Then he added a tongue for symphony and drew the loop from the top corners down through the center where he connected the bottom of the loop to a twine drawn through the center of the frame. That completed he attached the nylon tail and connected his ball of No.2 twine to the end of the loop. When he was finished he rolled up the tails of both kites like garden hoses and hung them on nails on the dining room wall to keep them out of harm's way.
Well, it was finally Easter Sunday and it was time for Sunday school. That morning he and Padmini were outfitted in their very best, he in a white shirt, black bowtie and black shorts, and she in a white laced dress with matching socks. On Good Friday people wore black to church to mourn the death of Jesus but today, his mother said, was resurrection day and therefore they must wear white to celebrate.
As expected, Sunday school attendance that morning diminished as many students could not wait to fly their kites and headed out for the ball field shortly after daybreak. Balram sat in his classroom and looked out the window as the teacher shared the Easter lesson. His mind was elsewhere. He knew how important it was to secure a good spot for flying kites, especially with the overhanging electric wires crossing certain parts of the field, and the huge palm trees at the southern end waiting for stray kite. He watched with envy as Kamal's Singing Engine kite rode the south westerly breeze to wuthering heights and as it danced wildly from side to side as if taunting the wind to increase its velocity. Kamal ought to have been in Sunday school that morning but his parents were not as strict about religion and virtually allowed him to do whatever his heart desired. The good news, at least so far, was that no one had taken the special spot, an area just south of the electric wires where one could fly a kite while enjoying the welcome shade of the Whitey tree. If the wind was sustained he could even leave his kite tied to a branch and dash home for a quick snack without having to pull the kite down and lose his space.
The Sunday school teacher, Mr. Sookram, aware that he was fighting a losing battle to hold the interest of the children, whose view of the steadily increasing volume of kites was unobstructed, wisely decided to abridge his lesson.
"I know all you kids are thinking about is getting out there with your kites," Mr. Sookram said, "so I won't keep you all any longer. Go home and fly your kites and don't forget the meaning of it all. When you see your kite going up in the air, let it remind you of how Jesus arose from the dead and ascended to heaven."
Yes, sir, they all responded in chorus as they tumbled out of the benches.
Balram could not wait to get home. His eyes were on the spot under the Whitey tree. It was still vacant. But kids were filling into the ground and several were on their way from the nearby village where there were no open lands for flying kites. Padmini could not move as fast and was soon lagging behind.
Come on, walk fast, or else we wont get a good spot, he cried.
I am walking as fast as I can, she hollered back. He slowed and she caught up to him, with a lot of questions on her mind.
"Bally, where is heaven?" she asked.
"Up there in the sky," he answered, hastily.
"In the clouds?"
"Pass the clouds!"
"Wow! So that is where Jesus went to prepare mansions for us?"
"Mansions? Who said anything about mansions?"
"Teacher Sookram. Didn't you hear? He said Jesus has gone to heaven to pray for us and that he will come back for us some day so we can live with him in heaven in mansions."
"I only heard the part where he said that when our kites go up into the sky we must remember that is like Jesus going to heaven."
They hurried home, changed off hurriedly, like models on a walkway, swallowed down two cups of boiled cow milk with leftover hot cross-buns with cheese, and then headed for the field with their kites strung like coats over their shoulders.
Balram tried to get Padmini's kite off the ground first but unfortunately the wind had died and it was a struggle to get it airborne. When she offered to hold up the kite so he could pull it against the wind, he resisted, for he was too grown up for that method of raising a kite. The big boys stood their ground and alternately fed and pulled at the twine until after several iterations the kite would be carried by a strong current. Eventually, after much sweat and toil, Padmini's kite was aloft, waltzing slowly and humming softly. Balram pulled the twine next to her ear so she could hear the sweet music that emanated from the brightly colored kite three hundred yards above ground, and then he strapped the reel to her tiny wrist.
"Suppose the kite pulls me away," she asked, clearly anxious that she might lose control of the kite.
"Don't worry," he assured her, "I didn't give it a pulling loop. I gave you a mounting loop."
With Padminis kite waltzing in the azure skies, he turned his attention to the box kite. It was the first time he was attempting to fly a boxboard kite and he was not sure about the length of tail required to keep the kite airborne and in motion. He wanted a tail sufficiently long to keep the kite from toppling over to the side but short enough to keep it dancing, on the verge of toppling. But when the kite refused to head skyward he decided to trim the tail and this he did in successive increments, hoping to achieve just the right length, whereby his kite would veer viciously to the right and left, always on the edge of overturning but always being pulled back by counter balancing forces at the last moment. Kites in motion like that made the most and loudest music and established the owner as big boy. As the midday sun took to unclouded skies the heat became unbearable and he decided to call it quits until afternoon. Quite understandably, Padmini, whose kite remained motionless in the sky, and who herself had not moved a foot for fear that the kite might pluck her up and take her away, complained that she was thirsty and that she wanted to go home. Feeling frustrated himself he pulled down her kite, balled up the twine and the two of them made their way through the tall grass and headed home for lunch.
As they sat around the table waiting to be served their Easter lunch in walked their rowdy cousins and their fancy expensive store-bought kites. As far back as he could remember his cousins always came by on Easter Sunday to fly their kites, a major reason being that there were no open fields or pastures where they lived. The adventurous kids in their neighborhood who took the chance with the overhanging electric cables lost their kites and to this day commuters can see the skeletal remains of mangled frames fastened at regular intervals on the electric cables along the public road.
Balram's cousins were Hindus who cared little about the significance of Easter. When Padmini, her mouth full of roti and chicken curry, tried to reiterate Mr. Sookram's Sunday lesson they simply dismissed her as being silly. The eldest cousin was most abrasive and when he explained that hot cross buns were cakes being offered to the pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess, Eastorite, and then used by Christians, who added a cross, to make it into a Christian tradition, poor Padmini was confused. Save for the youngest cousin, who was eight years old, they were all older than Balram and he found it best to stay out of the argument and just hold his peace. He would let his kite do the talking.
After lunch they all scrambled out from the bottom house and raced for the field for good spots. The sun was beginning to set behind the palm trees and its lengthened rays were made much weaker with the arrival of a sustained gust of North East tradewinds. The conditions were perfect for kite flying and everyone, including grandparents, decided to tread grass and cowholes and risk grass lice infestation for a bit of the outdoors and a better view of the multi-colored spectacle that littered the skies as far as the eyes could see. Kites of all shapes, sizes, and colors danced and sang, rose and fell, providing an intricate but dynamic mosaic against the unending backdrop of a deep blue canopy.
In minutes Balram's cousins had their kites up in the air. Their kites were identical, and like Padmini's, made of pointer broom and colored paper with big, girlie ears and frills. They hummed softly and moved little. He prayed a little prayer, mostly to stave off the impending embarrassment that will follow if he could not get his kite airborne. Then he joined both rolls of No.2 crochet to give him a combined length of two thousand yards, good enough to send his kite above everyone else, above the clouds, even to heaven where Jesus went that morning.
But he ran into difficulties again. Despite the cooperative wind he could not get the kite airborne. So he systematically removed little segments of the tail, thinking perhaps that the weight was too much, until the kite began to side-wind viciously before it catapulted to earth with a gut wrenching thud. His father heard the cousins laughter, saw the anguish on his sons face, and came to the rescue. He adjusted the loop, which he thought was too strong, and tied a few bits of cord to the tail to increase its surface area and thus its resistance to side-winding. All the while his cousins held proudly to their motionless kites and snickered under their breath, afraid to taunt him openly for fear that his father, their uncle, might chastise them and report their behavior to their parents. But Balram knew they were waiting for him to be alone so they could taunt him about his big box kite that could not get off the ground.
Unfortunately for him things did not get better. The old man completed the adjustments and managed to get the kite airborne, only to watch in dismay and shock as the kite fluttered and belly-flopped into the electric cables. Against the backdrop of the evening sky, now orange in tone, the cables were almost illusory, appearing to be much further away than estimated, and both Balram and his father had made poor estimates of the distance to the wires and suffered the consequence. They tugged gently at the twine hoping to unravel the kite but to no avail. The tail of the kite had wound itself around the cable and with the wires some forty feet above ground there was no way of poking the stranded bird out of its dilemma. For all practical purposes the kite was another Titanic, destroyed on its maiden voyage.
Despite consolation from his father, his granny, and his sister, who freely offered him her kite, which he refused, he wept for his kite. He had invested much thought in its design and many hours in its production with the hope that come Easter Sunday his kite would rise high above the myriad of smaller kites in the pluralistic skies above. But such was not to be. His kite, though the biggest and the best, was inextricably stuck between two live electric wires. He walked away empty handed, aware that his cousins were snickering behind his back, and he felt like a failure for in his mind he had failed to demonstrate how Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Then he wiped his eyes, in the manner of a man who thinks it is time to move on and accepted the fact that he was still too young, too inexperienced, to build a kite that would silence his opponents and detractors. But he was growing in knowledge and experience and next year he will return, armed and ready, to hoist his kite above the rest, to heaven, where Jesus lives.
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