Winter Kites

by Sofia Ali-Khan

In the winter, I think of kites flown from rooftops. It makes little sense here in Ontario, where the winters are blisteringly cold and our rooftops are peaked to let the copious snow melt off. In the next few months, it will drop below freezing for endless days in a row. This is a summer kite place. We always fly them on the wide soccer field just outside of my children’s school though the kids pretend that kites are boring now. The kites are seductively easy to fly in the breeze that comes so persistently off the Niagara escarpment, its distant tree line broken by towering limestone.  They get the kites up within minutes, then lie back into the grass to wonder at them for another hour longer.

Watching them as they watch the kites transports me, fulfills a cellular yearning to spend winter in Pakistan again, flying kites from rooftops. I wasn’t even born there. I am the child of diaspora, born in Florida, raised in Pennsylvania. But I returned often enough that, when I was old enough to follow the long story of our family back to its source, I could already taste and smell and see where it would lead. Sindhis, from the southeast corner of the country, along the Indus River, fly kites in the winter and drink hot black tea boiled in water and buffalo milk all year long, even in the blazing heat of the Thar desert summer. But it is an especially soothing habit in winters without modern heating systems. 

In rural homes, there’d be fire at the center of the courtyard, for cooking. Even in the city, where we less frequently invite fire into the center of our homes, apartments are stacked in unimaginable mazes to ensure each has a center open to a sliver of sky. Courtyards are where we congregate in the afternoon sun, wrapped up in shawls with tea in hand. And then, across the city as the sun sets, just before the evening call to prayer, we climb to flat rooftops to fly our winter kites.

For some neighbors, the kites are an excuse to visit with each other rooftop to rooftop. Sometimes, the rooftops allow for romance, stolen glances at someone you might never otherwise see, permissible because the distance between rooftops preserves everyone’s modesty. For young women, in the most regressive of times, they are a brief freedom from the constraints of the household. Though we are warned frequently that we mustn’t go to the roof with our hair unbraided, or wearing red, lest we attract the attention of a jinn.

There is a great, curvy, woman part of me that could never regret my father’s 1963 migration here, to frozen North America. I have never been taught to fear jinn, have always worn my hair unbraided, and dressed in all the red I like, which it turns out isn’t much. I am the daughter of a different kind of regret.  

When the British arrived in South Asia, the Moghul empire was already fading but South Asia still produced a quarter of the whole world’s wealth, while Britain produced almost none.  If what we retained is any indication, it was a place of unimaginable beauty, no building unadorned, no jewel set without filagree, beds that swing from heavy dark wood A-frames, mind bending mosaics and tileworks. It was rich with textiles and the cotton from which they were woven; awash with the world’s finest jewels; it was rich with ships that crossed the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, connecting three continents. South Asians from more than a dozen separate kingdoms grew a dizzying array of grains and legumes, fruits, and vegetables. By the time the British left, having sat heavily on the entire subcontinent, draining its wealth, driving rolling famines, and suppressing its people for two hundred years, they had so pillaged and destroyed the economies and societies of what are now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh that none have yet climbed to their former glory.

Poverty drives all manner of despair, disrepair, and discontent. When my parents left Pakistan, they fled post-colonial sectarian violence and chaos. Theirs was a migration first here, to Ontario, and later to the United States, where they saw greater opportunity.

My husband, children and I left the United States more than forty years later, when it elected a president who campaigned on our elimination, on a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Seeing that Pakistan could not yet promise clean drinking water to most of its citizens, we settled here, partway back along my parents’ route of migration.

Maybe it’s because of this reversal, this circling back to places my family had left behind and considering a return yet to our ancestral home, that I no longer think of time as a straight line. I no longer feel my body to be in only one place. I can no longer fly a kite in the Ontario summer without being transported to a winter rooftop in Pakistan. I can no longer drink a cup of tea in a snowstorm without feeling I’ve been to the desert.

photo credit: Lenstravelier, Unsplash