Sitting in his home in the labyrinthine Old Delhi, octogenarian ace kite flyer Bhai Mian treasures his skill and the izzat he earned from this passion

Delhi’s Old Quarter today is a chaotic amalgam of revered historical monuments, dirty warrens and noisy wholesale markets. Compared with Lutyens’ and Baker’s later obsessively neat vision for a renewed symbolism of an imperial city, not much could be changed even by the British in terms of what they would term now as the “old city”, a city built according to the plans of emperor Shah Jahan, and gorgeous as Francois Bernier described it as comparable to the most beautiful European cities he had seen or heard of, including Paris. Today that city, in the common sense of wider Delhi, Old Delhi encompasses a labyrinthine world; gestated from what remained of that Shahjahanabad, the imperial city of the Mughals, after its ravage by the British troops in 1857.

Too many stories of recently ruined hedonistic millionaires abound here. Even a cursory gaze reveals the riotous food streets and garishly painted houses and mosques entangled with miles of cobwebbed telephone and electrical wires which hang overhead. These are closed quarters in which people exist, hemmed in by the constraining lines of the ghettoization. People walk by you here, sometimes too closely for you not to notice. Though rooster and ram fights have ceased in these parts, in and around spaces adjoining General Shahnawaz’s tomb, people routinely bet and play pachisi/dice with a sacerdotal zeal all day.

And this is the mish-mashed, historically and culturally astounding, world into which I descended two years back during my residency at the nearby St. Stephen’s hospital and to where I keep returning. A five-day kite-flying festival is in full swing this time, I hop into a subway train to Delhi-6, allured by the prospect of meeting the El Padrino of kite-flying in Delhi, Syed Muhiyuddin alias Bhai Mian.

On the terrace of Bhai Mian’s residence at Dujana house, the major landmarks of Delhi form the background while countless kites scour the skies. His nephew Abul Hassan, formerly a cricketer, points to the bird cage where scores of Bhai Mian’s kabuli and gola pigeons reside. “The pigeons are shedding old feathers, and growing new ones. By January, they will be ready for competitions,” he explains.

Downstairs, inside Bhai Mian’s sparsely furnished jewellery workshop, innumerable trophies and silver mementos cover every bit of available space; sharing the same space are bundles of sawed off bamboo sticks, a kite structure essential. “I never fly a kite made by others!” Bhai Mian remarks nonchalantly, in his trademark snow-white beard and skull cap.

He is pushing 80 and hasn’t been keeping well. Born in the 1940s in the Seraj wali Haveli, he vividly remembers his late mother never letting him be out of sight during the vicious rioting that convulsed Delhi at the time of Partition. “The Jama Masjid area was spared of the madness, but other localities weren’t so lucky. Times were really bad; so bad that if a mother lost the grip on her child while fleeing the rioters she wouldn’t risk a rescue attempt lest the child got orphaned in the process.”

His innate kite flying skills manifested early on. Just into his teens, he earned the sobriquet of Nau Shirwan (The Ace) who plays the recommended nine opposing competitors to the floor in a match, a significant achievement for a novice. In 1970, along with other friends, he formed the Diamond Kite Flyers Association, which in his view was a watershed moment.

His quest for proficiency totally consumed him, first refusing to continue at school and then venturing outside of Delhi, lest it interfere with his zest for achieving an unbeatable level of individual excellence. Even boarding a train came very late in life, in time though to compete in the Ahmedabad kite flying festival in 1991.

“Surprisingly, I got relegated to a third place. The organisers probably loathed the idea of an outsider winning it all!” Invited to Dubai in 1996, he set a record, by flying 1184 kites on a single string. “I pioneered the box kites here. I then built a mammoth 400 sq. feet kite in Noida, and my son Jamal the smallest, measuring just two sq. cm. Offered residency and a business outlet in the UAE, he refused and instead set up exhibitions in many of the cities he competed in as well as helped organise local tournaments.

Coupled with a stroke, uncontrolled diabetes and foot ulcers have taken their toll, forcing an early retirement though Bhai Mian still heads the kite flying association. Elder son Jamal has stepped in, representing him in faraway places; from Russia to New Zealand, other sons in Maldives and Bangladesh.

Bhai Mian holds no regrets in life, which he believes was very well-lived. He made a guest appearance alongside Aamir Khan in the movie 1947 Earth, while his life and times was the subject of Sameera Jain’s film Portraits of Belonging in 1998. He pulls out an old black and white photograph from an album, taken in the early 1960s. I see a trim bearded young man, with a dour and forbidding persona welded to Mediterranean looks. “That’s me. I have come a long way, I guess,” he remarks pointing to the picture.

Had life proffered less? “No,” pat comes the answer. “My name has made its way into the chronicles of patang baazi, not to mention the izzat, why would I wish for anything more?”

(Dr. Mir Khalid is a surgeon based in Dublin, Ireland. His collection of Urdu poetry Asbaat -e-Khudi was published in 2012.)