Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Paan - The Great Indian Tradition

Some years ago I was attending a symposium on 'Indian Identity'. My good friend Atul Sapre (who always loves a argument – any topic – that doesn't matter) argued that there is no such thing as an 'Indian' identity. As I was thinking of things that are uniquely Indian, eating paan was one thing that sprang to my mind. Yes, I agree that it is not confined to the political boundaries of India. It is popular all over the Indian subcontinent as well as in parts of the Far East. Nevertheless, I shall let Atul bask in his dismissal of the Indian Identity and focus on the various aspects of paan.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the beginnings of paan. But there is no doubt that it is sufficiently ancient to have deserved a place of mention in Ayurved – the school of ancient Indian medicine. Today its place in medicine has got overshadowed by its unique place the Indian food habits. Actually, it not just a part of food. Its not even just an after-meal mouth freshener. It is actually an institution by itself and each humble paanwallah at every nook and corner of an Indian street from Muzaffarpur to Mumbai is a carrier of this traditional institution.
Wikipedia defines paan as “Betel Leaf, pan (in many Indic languages, Hindi : पान ), or beeda (in Tamil) is a type of Indian digestive, which consists of fillings wrapped in a triangular package using leaves of the Betel pepper (Piper betle) and held together with a toothpick or a clove.
Ouch, that actually doesn't tell you anything about paan at all.
Paan is an experience that actually cannot be defined, leave alone described. It goes beyond 'fillings wrapped in a triangular package'. It has to start with the leisurely stroll (or a drive these days) every evening to the paanwallah. It has to be followed by the mandatory greetings - jai raam ji ki, or at least a namashkar. (Please note – the pure version of namaSkar does not work well with the paanwallah – it has to be namaSHkar bhaiyyaji....)
This absolutely must be followed by the desultory talk of how the day has been, weather, the fluctuating fortunes of our cricket as well as Bollywood heroes. Anyone in a hurry will be treated with disdain at the paan shop. Paanwallahs also have their own way of ignoring someone who is in a big hurry. Remember that paan is not fast food, nor can it be picked up off a rack in a shopping mall. So ideally one must visit the paan shop along with like-minded paan addicts. So you can catch up on the daily gossip around the block as the paanwalah carefully attends to your paan. That's the beauty – just like Bertie Wooster can go to his daily pub and wait for 'the usual', you really don't have to order your paan. That is, only if you have built a relationship over time with the paanwaallah. While you wait at the shop for your daily fare to arrive, several eager beavers will lean over your shoulder to buy 'ek chhota gold flake' but dont mind. Let them be. The Lord (paanwaallah, that is) shall not be distracted from your paan as he casually leans over his shoulder and picks a cigarette off the bin and hands it over to Mr. Quick-Gun Murugun. His mind is still engaged in your paan. Not a milligram of chuna (lime paste) less or more. No guesswork about which supari to be put and in what quantity. As long as he has the bond with you, the paan will turn out to be perfect.
This picture is from the paan stall at Hotel Raviraj in Pune, where I have been religiously going for the past 18 or so years. Jagannath bhai and his fellows are a wonderful lot. He even came for my wedding. His gift to both of us was not a surprise – a paan each, of course.

My friend Subodh Jagdale, an Ayurved practitioner updated me about what Ayurved has to say about paan

Asyaa: p~M pUgaflaaidsaihtM Aasya vaOYaVaqa--ma\ Baxato
It says that paan eaten with supari (areca nut) has a cleansing and astringent effect on the mouth. Further Charaka (the father of ancient Indian medicine) also suggests the ideal composition of paan in his sutrasthaan, Chapter 5, Verse 77 as follows -

jaatI kTukpUgaanaama\ lavaMgasya flaaina ca
kMkaolasya flaM p~M taMbaUlasya XauBaM tqaa
tqaa kp--U-rinayaa------saa: saUxmaOlaayaaha flaaina ca
Jayphal (nutmeg – Myristica fragrans), bitter supari (Areca catechu), clove (Syzigium aromaticum) and kankol (Java Pepper - Piper cubeba) will make a paan nice. Additionally, you should also include camphor and small cardamom in it.”
Its interesting to note that there is no mention of chuna (lime paste), kattha (catechu paste) or tobacco in Ayurved. Today most paan eaters will not be able to imagine a paan without these three ingredients. But this is not surprising at all, simply because tobacco has got introduced to India only in the last 400 years from the West.

Today many Westerners would find the habit of paan eating (chewing is the right word, actually) deplorable. Thats mainly because of two reasons. One - the habit that follows chewing. The spitting, that is. You can find walls and roads in India plastered with the red stains. Two – a large majority of westerners will feel as if they have put a burning ember in their mouth instead of a paan. Thats just because of the lime. Poor souls – its a pity they cannot handle the power of a paan !
Dont get me wrong – I am not in favour of spitting all over the place. Some daring individuals even have the gumption of doing it out of the window of a moving vehicle. If that spoils the carefully washed and ironed shirt of a someone who unfortunately happens to be in the line of fire, thats too bad, pal. It happens, it happens only in India.
The red stains were even given a playful romantic twist in the lovely nautanki song from 'Teesri kasam', where Waheeda Rehman is par excellence. Paan khaye sainyaa hamaar, malmal ke kurte pe chheent laal laal, haay.....(my lover eats a paan, and oh dear – just look at those stains on his lovely kurta!)
So by all means, cultivate the great habit of a daily paan, but if you have to spit, please do so in the spittoon kept outside every paan shop these days.


Dr. Subodh said...

Hey well written!!
Its got all the right ingredients of literature and content. The photo did stir a few memories of days way back in late eighties.
Keep doing and all the best for future endeavours.
Subodh Jagdale

Donelle said...

Great work.

Meghana said...

Well written post!

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