Jai Prakash Singh grins with his teeth stained red. He is not bleeding—it’s the doings of the notorious paan. However, it satiates Singh.
Twice a day, Singh visits his neighborhood paan stall called the Top Family Pan Mahal, in Gyaneshwor. “Chewing paan has become a habit. Every morning and evening after a meal, I have to have a paan,” says Singh, spitting the red liquid on the road, painting it red. The paan maker Lal Bahadur Chaurasia has become his friend because in between the process of ordering the paan and the wait while it is made, the two strike up conversations regarding life, country, their villages, business, and the bloody politics.
Singh is not alone. Tens of others like Singh come to Chaurasia and similar other paan shops like Pashupati Paan Bhandar, New VIP Paan Bhandar, Shree Ganesh Paan Pasal, Top Prince Pan Bhandar and numerous nameless paan stops for tobacco (tambaku/jarda paan), sweet (meetha paan), and plain (sada paan).
When paan is chewed, a red food dye inside it makes the mouth red and it is what precipitated Jai Prakash Singh’s mouth to turn red. Many people do not swallow much of paan, thus resulting in pool of red liquid which they spit out rather than swallowing. “Eating paan is an art” comments Singh who hails from Itahari, in Tarai.
Because of its close geographical proximity with the border areas of India, paan booths are common sights, especially in the Tarai lowlands. Small, big, economic, extravagant, there are all kinds of paan shops in every nook and corner of the country. The cost of opening a paan shop starts from a meager NRs 200 to lavishly designed paan shops costing NRs 100,000. “Almost all of the materials are imported from India—the betel leaves, the masalas (spices) that are filled inside the paan. Everything is from across the border. “In Nepal” explains Ram Kishwor of Top in Town Pan booth, “betel plants are grown in Jhapa, but the leaves are small and sour. Practicing pragmatism, we rather get things imported. We have suppliers and they get the materials to us from Banaras and Calcutta.”
Uniting the nation
Many migrants from the Tarai to Kathmandu, Pokhara and other towns and cities in the hills extol paan for its various rewards. South Asians like Nepalis, Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis use a lot of spices and oil in their cooking, and as paan is a digestive and mouth freshener, it is greatly favored at the end of meal. “In the Tarai, paan booths are as famous as the tea shops in the capital” says Ram Kishwor, a self-proclaimed paan addict hailing from the lowlands. Not only Ram Prasad Jha and Purshuttom Gupta, both from the Tarai, but Krishna Shrestha and Narayan Gurung, both city born, fondly nurture the adopted habit by visiting nearby paan booths every day for a sweet digestive after a heavy meal. (However, several studies have demonstrated that Areca nut and betel-quid chewing, alone or with tobacco, is the major cause of oral, esophageal, and stomach cancer in Asia.)
Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the ex-prime minister, is a devout paan lover. There have been many articles describing his devotion to paan, which show off his addiction amongst the public. In 2001, he acted as chief guest during the inauguration of Paan Business
Association of Nepal. The president of the association is Mahendra Prasad Chaurasiya, the brother-in-law of Lal Bahadur Chaurasia, the paan maker. “The association formed by the paan-shop owners works towards the betterment of the paan wallahs (paan makers). Presently, 650 paan owners in the capital are registered in our organization. We also have branch offices in Jhapa, Saptari, Itahari and other districts. We have opened Gyan Sagar Savings and Credit P. Ltd., to promote the lifestyle of paan makers, providing them loans at minimum costs. With time, we have expanded our interests. We also provide loans to the retailers of various businesses” says Mahendra.
Mahendra Chaurasiya first started his paan business at his hometown of Birgunj. He later opened Top Family Pan Mahal, in Gyaneshwor, Kathmandu, where Lal (his nephew) has been employed for the last 12 years. Mahendra settled in the capital and started the paan business in 1996. Today’s lavishly constructed Top Family Pan Mahal was then a small, unnoticeable pan shop generating just enough income to thwart him leading a life of a pauper. As his paan business prospered so did he become a prosperous man. Now, he exports matka paan (paan ingredients stuffed inside a small clay pot) to Chennai, India. His clients order hundreds of paan mixes for weddings and small parties. Even during the off-seasons, his regular, loyal customers visit his Pan Mahal every day. So for him there is no peak season or otherwise, he is a happy man running a lucrative business all year round.
As sometimes happens, the definition of a paan booth has suffered from deconstruction; namely, modern paan booths, those temporary stands
creatively decorated with colorful packets of paan parag and pass pass (digesters) also sell biscuits, noodles, cigarettes, chocolates, chewing gums, and even condoms. “The elders get paan for themselves, and so to entertain the young children we have kept biscuits and the other edibles,” explains Chaurasia, screening the cabinets stuffed with various fast food items.
How to make paan
A paan wallah (paan maker) prepares a Meetha Paan (Sweet Paan) as follows:
Varieties of Paan, ranging from 25 to 350 rupees:
‘Dulha dulhan paan’ (bride and bridegroom paan), ‘Matki chips paan’ (paan in a clay pot), ‘Golden children’, ‘Silver cream paan’, ‘Two in one paan’, ‘Shahi paan’ (or ‘royal paan’), ‘Birthday paan’, ‘Family box pan’, ‘Lovely meetha paan’, ‘Silver children paan’, and ‘Kuch kuch meetha’, are some of the names paan, of various flavors, goes by. The varieties increase as the paan maker explores his creativity.
One of the most expensive paans at the Top Family Pan Mahal is called ‘Good Night Pan’. The name might be misleading, but it is meant for weddings and costs 750 rupees.
Growing the vine (the betel plant)
Special attention has to be paid to the soil and climate for cultivating these vines. Not everyone can grow them in their backyard. The vineyards are
located in areas that are slightly raised and have adequate water. The land is somewhat sloped, to ensure that water does not collect around the vine. The vines are grown within a hut shaped structure. The four walls are made of light grass mats so that adequate air and sunlight can stream in gently. Cultivation of the betel leaf is an art, so necessary measures must be applied. There are no shortcuts to betel plant cultivation. Care must be taken all the time. The vine is dependent on water, for example; but excess water makes it weak.
Varieties of betel leaf
Varieties of betel leaf are grown in different parts of India and Bangladesh. Banarasi paan is well known for its color, look, fragrance and flavor. Maghai paan immediately dissolves in the mouth. According to the practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine, ‘Bangala Paan’, also called ‘Meetha Patta’, is considered the best. It is very popular due to its flavor, fragrance and the warmth it gives in the mouth. On the other hand, ‘Madrasi Paan’ satisfies the common man’s desire for paan and is economical. South Indian ‘Kapuri Paan’ is made from long leaves. It has an unusual flavor and fragrance. Some people like to eat only this variety, but it is mostly used in worship, as described below It is also inexpensive. ‘Malwi Paan’ is famous for its special flavor and fragrance.
Offering to god
Paan is also used as an offering to god. It is an essential feature of worship. Paan is considered sacred, for according to Hinduism’s Vedic teachings, an areca nut placed on a betel leaf represents Lord Ganesha. According to one story, the Pandava prince Arjuna brought this vine from heaven. Ayurvedic doctors assert that chewing areca nut and betel leaf is a good remedy against bad breath (halitosis).
Paan has been a very good source of employment and trade. Hundreds of people in Nepal earn their livelihood in the paan business. Every city and town and almost every village, especially in the Tarai, has paan shops. They invite you chew, but we invite you not to paint the town red!
Over the past few years, it’s been my privilege and pleasure to interview a wide cross section of...