You are here: Home » Opinion » Columns
Business Standard

Geetanjali Krishna: Lessons in paan etiquette


Geetanjali Krishna  |  New Delhi 

Having spent large portions of my life in the boondocks of UP, I've often wondered how people here manage to talk whilst their mouths are brimming with betel juice. Me, I tend to swallow that occasional post-prandial paan as soon as I possibly can without choking upon it. Which is why I loved the famous Maghai paan in Benares. It sort of melted delicately in my mouth within seconds of my popping it in. But I hadn't realised that in doing so, I was committing a terrible faux pas. "What's this?" the paanwala roared, "have you swallowed it already?" People stopped to stare. "You don't chew a Banarsi paan "" it's not a samosa! You pop it into your mouth like this," he demonstrated, "tuck it into your cheek like this...then leave it there to dissolve on its own!" I hung my head in shame and muttered incoherently (paan does that to me) about knowing little of the Banarsi paan but wanting to learn more. He shamed me into tucking another paan inside my cheek, put me on a rickshaw, and dispatched me to the paan dariba, the wholesale market for betel leaves.
Talk about starting at the very beginning, I thought as I found myself in a crowded courtyard so covered by small straw-covered baskets there was no place to walk. Apparently, the market received consignments of different types of paans on different days, and I'd arrived on a Saturday morning, when the Maghai leaf (with which Banarsi paan is customarily made) came in from Bihar. Scores of farmers from Gaya were unloading baskets of the fragrant leaf from rickshaws and carts in the courtyard. Local traders, as well as traders from nearby towns, sat around, opening baskets to inspect the leaves that lay nestled in straw packing. A stack of prime Maghai about the width of my palm was going for about Rs 100, while lower grade leaves were correspondingly cheaper.
"Everyone thinks that since the paan is called a Banarsi, it must be grown here," said Anil Chaurasia, one of the bigger traders there. "But actually, it's how we process the leaf here that gives the paan its name." Showing me a whitish leaf with brown spots on it, he said, "this Maghai leaf has been treated in a heating process by which the leaf slowly gains crispness and loses colour. In fact, the highest grade of Maghai is practically white." He smiled broadly when he saw my face, "I can see you've already tried our paan "" did it dissolve in your mouth or not?" I mumbled assent (try keeping a paan in your mouth for half an hour and you'll understand how hard it is to speak clearly).
Four generations of Chaurasia's very affluent family have been paan traders, but now the market has gone down. "The younger generation has switched to paan masala," he said, spitting disgustedly, "although it ruins their health. The older generation still prefers paan, but it's now slowly dying out." Then there's the myth that paan is bad for health, he added. "Nothing could be farther from the truth!" he said, "put a hot paan leaf on a child's chest and banish the most recalcitrant cough! It's a digestive and is used for cosmetic reasons too." I asked how and he grinned slyly, "Haven't you noticed how much attention you get whenever you eat paan? It's a natural red lipstick..." I was spluttering and ineffectually trying to clean my mouth when he left to start yet another day of work in the paan dariba...

First Published: Sat, April 21 2007. 00:00 IST