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paan: Chewing on a Leaf from History

Nicollao Manucci of Venice came to India as a boy of 14 in 1655, and spent the rest of his life in the country. After living in Delhi, Agra and Goa, practising as a self-taught doctor, he returned to Pondicherry where he died in 1717. His Storia di Mogor has a lot of salacious gossip about the going-on in the harems of Mughal kings.
On his first journey from Surat to Agra and Delhi, Manucci was much intrigued by Indians' favorite indulgence. He wrote: "Among other things, I was much surprised to see that almost everybody was spitting something red as blood. I imagined it must be due to some complaint of the country, or that their teeth has become broken. I asked an English lady what was the matter, and whether it was the practice in this country for the inhabitants to have their teeth extracted.
When she understood my question, she answered that it was not any disease, but a certain aromatic leaf called in the language of the country - paan, or in Portuguese, betel. She ordered some leaves to be brought, ate some herself and gave me some to eat. Having taken them, my head swan to such an extent that I feared I was dying. It caused me to fall down; I lost my color, and endured agonies; but she poured into my mouth a little salt, and brought me to my senses. the lady assured me that everyone who ate it for the first time felt the same effects.
Betel, or paan is a leaf similar to the ivy-leaf, but the betel leaf is longer. It is very medicinal, and eaten by everybody in India. they chew it along with arecas, which physicians call Avelans Indicas, and a little Katha, which is the dried juice of a certain plant that grows in India. Smearing the betel leaf with a little of the katha, they chew them together, which makes the lips scarlet and gives a pleasant scent. It happens with the eaters of betel, as to those accustomed to take tobacco, that they are unable to refrain from taking it many times a day. Thus the women of India, whose principal business it is to tell stories and eat betel, are unable to remain many minutes without having it in their mouths.
It is an exceedingly common practice in India to offer betel leaf by way of politeness, chiefly among great men, who when anyone pays them a visit, offer betel at the time or leaving as mark of goodwill, and of the estimation in which they hold the person who is visiting them. It would be great piece of rudeness to refuse it."
-  from Beyond the Three Seas, edited by M.H. Fisher, Random House

(Found it in Khushwant Singh's weekly column in Hindustan Times dated October 4, 2008. I think Khushwant Singh would have been a great blogger! )

Reading about the paan adventure of Nicollao Manucci - the Italian contemporary of French traveller Francois Bernier, reminded me of my first experience with paan.
On the first day of this year, I was on my way traveling from Goa to Mumbai with a few friends in a car that was hired at a rate that can only be termed - New Year Time Extortion Rate.
On the way, we stopped at a roadside tea stall in a small konkan village for a tea break.Only Tiger bisskut and chai here. Didn't feel like having tea. Nearby, I saw what looked like a paan shop. It wasn't like the one's in the city. No tin here. This was a kiosk made of dry grass - in cool shade of yellow.
I walked up to the shop and peeked in from the window. No one inside. In front of my eye, on a wooden table, there were small wet paan leaves neatly cut up probably using a pair of grey scissors; I saw men in great moustache looking on solemly from round tin boxes of tobacco, red paste of Katha in a little translucent plastic box, some Supari - areca nuts diced up kept in a little lid less box and a freshly made - thick at places think at places- paste of chuna lime pattered on a small flat stone. An old woman of black hiding grey hair, katha painted red lips, tobacco stained brown teeth and a red bordered crumpled green cotton sari with earth brown colored blouse. A professional. 'What do you want?' she asked.
I told my self, 'Why not!'
'Paan', I replied.
She started the process. It is a process. I thought this would take time. I looked around some more and saw some bidi boxes and some cigarette packs - the kind that are not smooth or long, often not filtered and just cost as much as a cold drink bottle. Her hands were at work. She picked up a slightly paling yellow paan leaf and spread a thin white coating chuna on it using a twig. Then her hands went for the tobacco boxes. She picked up a light blue box in her hand, paused - either she thought that I couldn't take it, Strong stuff, or,  I could take it, Light stuff. She put it back and then picked up a rusty old tin box lying next to it; She opened it, put her hand in, caught some tobacco flakes using her dark fingers, and sprinkled them onto the waiting leaf.  She added two nuggets of chopped up Supari. Then with a quick movement of fingers, she rolled up the contorted leaf. Fold, roll of fingers, fold, roll of fingers, another fold, another roll of fingers and it is done. 
She handed it over to me, holding it in between her index finger and the thumb.
'How much?' I asked her while receiving the paan in my index finger and the thumb.
Her answer surprised me a bit, 'Three'.
'Not much!' I thought. Handed over the change and walked back to the car.
Driver was done with his tea. All this time my friends were busy checking if their cheap wine bottles were fine and nicely hidden in the belly of bulging bags kept in the car's dickey. All fine, we all got it, and drove out of the village. I told them about paan. Showed them the little devil and put it my mouth. And then chewed on it. We talked a bit of chatter about: "How a paan directly hits the brains - Bang!". I chewed and chewed, rolled my tongue on the Supari. And chewed some more. It tasted like...I don't know, but could surely feel the lime acting on the inside of my cheeks.

Disappointingly, the paan didn't get to my head. Not instantly - as it is claimed even by Nicollao Manucci. Not at all - it does not hit. The old woman must have taken pity on me and maybe decided I couldn't take it on a paan with all its might and mysteries.

We talked some more about: " Blood red stained Indian roads and buildings!", "Staining of Teeth!", "Ill Effects on Health!", and naturally the talk drifted to "Other Dangerous Indian Intoxicants!". Got bored.

Finally  it was time to go 'pichuk'. Sputtering out  paan ridden saliva is an art. An act comparable in India only to a fine brush stroke or a perfect Square drive. So, brazenly I put my head out of the car and let it out, the first one, in one nice little gentle stream. I could see it was brilliant red - almost blood. Red was the color of  road at the point of contact. I was painting the road red.

First attempt was not not perfect. My aim undone by wind, I ended up painting the side of the car also. A quick coagulation drying up the red. I put my hands out to swipe it clean. And so it went on for a few miles.


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