Sunday, January 01, 2006
YEH PAAAN HAI MUST MUST
Many urbane people look at the habit of chewing paan with dismay and askance. However,it is a very popular custom among rural and many urban Indians as well. Chewing paan-supari or beetel-leaves with chuna and arcanut is an addiction with some and an obsession with many. It is considered to be one of the keys to good health,wealth and prosperity. On any auspicious occasion,the function remains incomplete without distributuion of paan and supari among the invitees. Perhaps this practice has been in existence from Vedic times.
Our physicians of yore had discovered paan and found it to be useful for sharpening of appetite and digestion of food. Paan also acts as a germicide in a small way and helps human beings to keep their alimentary canal clean. Beetel chewing not only arrests the fermentation and formation of gases;it also helps to conceal the bad smell in the mouth formed by residual food particles.Consumed in moderation,the use of paan in the morning checks the formation of phlegm and helps in clearing the bowels.
And paan is a great leveller. Whether rich or poor,upper caste or lower caste,educated or uneducated,employed or unemployed,he or she gets attracted to paan like bees to a flower. Paan is associated with Goddess Lakshmi. Men and women are supposed to please Her by chewing paan and receive her blessings. "Thaambula dhaaranam karishye",says the worshipper.
Paan industry is a huge multicrore industry in India. And even in Pakistan,Bangladesh and Nepal,paanchewing is a popular pastime. Sophisticated people though,prefer paan masala a la 'paan paraag' to the basic paan and chuna and beetelnut. Companies manufacturing these products have massive advertising budgets and splash their products over newspapers and televison. They rake in huge profits. Some of them even get mixed up with the underworld mafia.
My father was a great afficianado. In his youth, he suffered from severe tonsilitis. He would lose his voice often,albeit temporarily. And those days surgery was considered to be very risky. Doctors advised him to cultivate the habit of chewing paan with some tobacco in it. He continued this habit for 70 years almost till his last days. When he went abroad,and he travelled extensively,he would take his quota for a few days with him. Replenishment would follow courtesy the pilots of Air India.In one of the cocktail parties,his foreign guests were amused at his habit of paanchewing and the host wanted to taste a paan.When he was offered one,he immediately ejected it out of his mouth saying "how horrible". And later when wine was offered to my father he spit it out in front of his host.They had a hearty laugh.Such was his loyalty to his paan.I too got slowly attracted to this habit and have enjoyed my paanchewing though I have never been able to match him in his consumption rates. He preferred to chew only madrasi paan though other varieties like poona paan,banarsi paan and kolkata paan are also available.
Paan making is an art in itself. Each heartshaped paan is given a layer of chuna and filled with perfumed supari or just broken arcanut and folded with silver foil before placing it in the mouth. Then comes the period of ecstacy when you chew it to your heart's content and after completion spit the reddish liquid out.Government offices are famous for the red colour melange in their walls which bear mute witnesses to the indulgences of the babumoshais. In some cases the paan is split into two down the middle.The two halves are placed together.The fingers are then dipped in a pot containing thick lime & water solution and the top half-leaf is coated with the white paste. It is the alkaline substancce that protects the mouth from the sharp pungency of paan juice. Then a brown liquid would be applied over the white paste and then the green,brown and white tones of the paan form a perfect foil to the spices that are to follow. Finely grated supari,cardamom.fennel seeds,gulkan etc are then added and then the paan is wrapped to form a small cone and held together with a clove stuck through the edges.
Particularly after a hot and spicy meal,the cardamom,fennel and cloves act as chasers. Some paanlovers even have it with jarda or perfumed tobacco. Paan is considered to be an aphrodisiac,an inexpensive substitute for the modern Viagra.Not always though.There are paans which can cost a king's ransom.
The Oriyas refer to their paan as gundi paan.The 'beeda' is popular in the South.It has coconut shavings added to the paan.The Banarsi and Kalkatta meetha and theeka varieties, I suspect, are the most popular,at least in Mumbai. When I have a heavy meal paan is a must. My favourite paan shop is about 10 minutes walking distance from our house. Rammurat and Shriram run a thriving business.It is called Ram paan Parlour. The gliterrati of Mumbai come driving down in hordes in their imported cars to pick up their favourite banarsi or kalkatta meethas. Late Dhirubhai Ambani used to drive down in his Mercedes,chat with the Ram brothers and take back with him about 2 dozen paans. Kokilaben, Tina,Anil and Mukesh and the family continue to patronise the Ram Pan parlour after Dhirubhai's demise though they prefer to have their paans collected by their liveried chauffers who drive down in a Maybach or an Audio. The Ram brothers often fondly recapitulate their conversations with the late Dhirubhai.
Prices vary from Rs 10 to Rs 1500 per paan.They are other paanwallahs who sell even more expensive paans. What they contain is anybody's guess. Like Deve Gowda our ex-PM who likes to call himself a 'humble farmer',I like to remain as a 'humble paanchewer'. I stick to the Rs 10 variety.The Ram brothers make it to my specs and I get the bang for the bucks.