Culture

Memories Wrapped Inside A Betel Leaf 

The tambula, the Sanskrit word for the tidy package of areca nut, slaked lime (choona) and catechu (kattha) in a glorious acrid green leaf.
Snapshot
  • Once seen as the reason for people spitting on walls, the paan is now undergoing a gradual image makeover

A few days ago, I had a most satisfying meal in a delightful company and finished it off with a glistening sliver of good quality north Indian paan. Full and happy, I put the picture up on Twitter for other connoisseurs to enjoy. Soon, someone expressed surprise that I ate paan. My first reaction on reading that was one of mortification –the question implied that my Western lifestyle and demeanour didn’t quite mesh with the image one had of a paan-eater.

Plus, good girls don’t eat paan, and of course, I’m well brought up.

Since that day, however, I’ve had time to think things over and realise that my disdain over the betel leaf has gradually transformed into a longing to finish every satisfying meal with a moist, quivering gilauri.

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Eating tambula, the Sanskrit word for the tidy package of areca nut, slaked lime (choona) and catechu (kattha) in a glorious acrid green leaf, is an ancient habit in the subcontinent and more so, in India. We were told stories that Goddesses like Lalita Devi offered it to other visiting divinities. The Ayurveda mentions its numerous medicinal uses. Gupta era works talk of eating paan, so does the famous Silappadikaram, in which the pious Kannagi makes a tambula for her husband in the fashion of the times, when its digestive and aphrodisiac properties were considered best-consumed post every meal.

An old Sanskrit text suggests that 32 leaves were appropriate for a king, 24 for a tributary prince, six for an enemy, and four for a commoner. Emperor Harsha welcomed his monks with a “beeda” and India’s famed poets went into raptures over its possibilities. In Bana Bhatt’s Kadambari, the eponymous heroine sent tambula and karpura chandana to the hero as a token of her love.

“vestayanti praviralakusumam kesabharam karena prabhrastam cottariyam ratipatitagunam mekhalam daksinena tambulam codvahanti vikasitavadana muktakesa naraganiskranta guhyadesan madanavasagata marutam prarthayanti”
Bana Bhatt’s ‘Kadambari’

With her left hand doing up her heavy hair, on which few flowers [now remain],

And with her right holding up her upper garment, whose cord had slipped down

During love, and her betel; with blooming face, with disheveled hair, with passion sated,

Coming forth from the private chamber, having yielded to the power of love, she longs for the breeze.

As time went on, the paan, beeda or gilauri, remained a sign of culture and sophistication and but also came to be intimately associated with the louche and irresponsible rulers of medieval to modern India. During British times, it automatically lent itself to the Zamindari and minor nobility. Maybe this came to be so that social upstarts could continue with their cultural pretensions. Through the 18–19 century, eating tambula was a sign of luxury and an interest in pleasure but also, profligacy and irresponsibility. It wouldn’t take long for the stern, almost puritanical, foot soldiers of the Indian Independence Movement to frown on this habit.


















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Eating Pan with Two Maids. Pahari art, circa 18 century Woman Eating Pan with Two Maids. Pahari art, circa 18 century

When I was growing up, the mere thought of eating paan was heresy. It was something grownups did, and that too those grownups who had the air of living a tad dangerously and more loosely than the rest of the safari-suited middle classes. Though there were strict instructions at home to never linger about or even cross paan shops, some were deemed safe and family friendly. There as a kid, I would stand and see paan being made.

Cigarette boxes lined the back. In the front, slightly revealed from under wet, red cloth, reposed light Banarasi or dark Kolkatta leaves. Steel tumblers with brass spoons stood at hand with wet and dry ingredients spilling out of them.

With quick slapping motions, the panwadi composed the derided meetha paan for the ladies, that had gulkand (rose jam), fennel, cardamom and clove. The saada paan was eaten only by the menfolk. It would have kattha, choona, areca nut and a dusting of qimam added in two shakes, with a seed of cardamom for the discerning or for the smokers. Occasionally the lime would cut a customer’s tongue, and he’d be there the next day, waiting to be consoled by a balanced gilauri.

A paanwadi in Pune, Maharashtra. A paanwadi in Pune, Maharashtra.

However, in my mind, the associations of paan as something deliberately enjoyed by adults was set early through my Nani and my father. In the long summer evenings, Nani would sit with her elegant silver paandaan and slowly arrange the components onto the leaves- the light parrot ones for the women, and dark, bitter Kolkatta paan leaves for the men.

Once done, she would put them beautifully on a silver plate and then pop one into her mouth. As all her kids and grand kids sat around her, cracking jokes and/or reading comic books, she would sing the thumri that her husband enjoyed the most. In my wonder struck eyes, she was the archetype glamorous older Indian woman who - after cooking, socialising, overseeing household chores and the garden - would end the day with a sensuous song, her lips stained a deep crimson with paan.

Equally, when my parents would return from a wedding, dad’s white dhoti kurta would be a little rumpled; the faintest of perfumes would emanate from him, after mingling with so many be-silked, bejewelled ladies and fashion forward men. But the foremost marker that he’d had a good time was the stain of red on his lips and the pleasing scent of very good paan. At once, from the harassed, overworked, chain smoking professional, he was transformed into a handsome, cosmopolitan man striding East and West.

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But these images soon passed. As I hit middle school, eating paan became the equal of reading in Hindi and going to a temple. The indolent tambula-eater of yore transformed into the stained, gummy, rotten-toothed wage labourer and uncouth goons who spat indiscriminately on walls. There was the talk of its deleterious effect on oral health owing to tobacco. Chewing gum and breath mints that left no telltale stains started gaining currency.

Candies came in paan flavour so you wouldn’t have to eat a messy beeda. This impression was the same everywhere. In Calcutta, the old guard of woolly-headed Walter Mittys was associated with fusty clubs and acrid paan. When I came down South, raw paan with minimum adornments was perfunctorily distributed as a digestive and mouth freshener. Its use was primarily religious, as part of the ashtamangalya for the Gods and as dakshina to officiating priests.

The
paan as plain digestive at a religious function in Mysore, Karnataka. The paan as plain digestive at a religious function in Mysore, Karnataka.

It seemed the paan was dead, but over the past few years, there arose two gradual trends. The GenX-Y cohort, flush with money and powered by nostalgia for childhood and better times, started driving consumption of things that brought them joy, all around the world.

Soon its gaze fell on a resurgent paan.

Secondly, as with gol-gappawallahs, panwadis sighted an economic opportunity in south Indian cities and made their move. Small tambulaagaars started popping up all over metros to cater to urban hipsters and always-on-the-move service and IT professionals. In heritage hotels, silver foiled paan was eagerly consumed by older women in heavy Kanjeevaram saris and glittering diamond nose pins and their hip grand kids.

A sort of postmodern, under-20 demographic interest was also on the uptick. After all, if your parents say it’s bad, should you not try it? So, while I cannot claim that the silvery days of paan’s decadent reign as the après dessert finisher of choice are back, the stigma has diminished, and it's far widely available than it was just a few years ago.

Which brings me back to how I started eating paan. Back home for Diwali a couple of years ago, I finished an incredibly cooked meal in amazing company. When we stood waiting outside the hotel for transportation, there was a tiny niggle of something being incomplete and not quite right.

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One of the smokers scoping cigarette shops looked around and asked, “Kisi ko paan khana hai?” Since we were all waiting and it was a way to pass the time, everyone agreed and were duly presented with plump beedas.

In a blinding flash of lightning, everything came together! The entire experience was lacking that one final sensual flourish. Sinking one’s teeth into a yielding leaf and hard seed released a flood of flavours. The fragrance was a bonus and the colour couldn’t have come out of a tube. It didn’t matter whether eating paan was no longer recherché, because the flavor and satisfaction payoff was off the charts.

Since then I was and have been a convert to the cult of the tambula, one of the oldest culinary flourishes that still evoke the same pleasure in the eater as it did thousands of years ago.

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