The principal business of India’s women is to gossip and eat paan. This is what the Venetian Niccolo Manucci reported on first reaching Surat in 1655. So much of this stuff did the ladies chew, Manucci said, thatShah Jahan gifted the revenues of Surat to his poet daughter Jahan-ara, to cover her paan expenses. At this point, I rejected this offensive story (what? All of Surat produced only enough revenue to cover an aunty’s paan habit? Not possible).

One of the first coherent sentences I learnt to say to strangers was: “Kalkatta sada, Navratan qimam, Star, elaichi, pakka tukda." The formulation for the paan my father ate.

The ingredient that made this paan special (“ascluziv", as my father might say) and expensive, is Navratan qiwam. My father called it qimam and so do I, and it is acceptable pronunciation.

The man I recited this line to from the age of 5 or so, Ranjit, the paanwala down the road, did not need to be reminded after a few months. “The usual" is something that can be said in only two places. The neighbourhood local in Europe and the paanwala of India. In India, even that need not be said. It is understood with a nod of the head.

The principal business of Surat’s men is to gossip and eat paan.

I got the habit in my teens and by the time I moved to Bombay (as it was then called) in my mid-20s, it had taken root. This was a problem because in the urban office nobody ate paan, and nobody else I know eats qimam.

Pan-Indian: The Kalkatta leaf is a sign of good taste. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
Pan-Indian: The Kalkatta leaf is a sign of good taste. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.

Paan eaters in our popular culture are usually, as we say in India, sidey characters. For instance, the harmonium player in Kajra mohabbat wala, acted by Kareena Kapoor’s mummy (with a turban and a false moustache, Babita still looks more feminine than her equine daughter). It is Vijay, the rustic Amitabh, who eats paan, rather than Don, the suave urban Amitabh, in the 1978 movie.

When Vijay ordered his paan, I immediately marked him as an amateur. Had I been in the rival gang, I would have picked him out as a fraud.

The offending line is “Khaikay paan Banaraswala".

Banarasi leaf is for people who eat children’s paan (with gooey sweet stuff). I think the correct word is “ladies paan".

The man eats the rich, deep, dark Kalkatta leaf and with tobacco.

In Teesri Kasam, Waheeda Rehman dances to the great paan song of Bollywood, Paan khaye sainyya hamaro. I knew immediately that Rehman knew her stuff when she sneers: “Le aaya zaalim Banaras ka zarda (Why did the tyrant bring Banaras tobacco ?)".

Incidentally, the movie should have been Teesri Qasam, spelt with the qaaf.

This brings me to the great Gulzar and his song on smelling Aishwarya Rai’s qimam-scented breath. Two men, Shankar Mahadevan and Javed Ali, sing the duet Kajra re. Irritatingly, I could immediately pick out the Hindu because he kept singing “kimam" instead of “qimam" in the line “Teri baaton mein qimam ki khushbu hai".

Many years ago, I dined in Lahore’s fabled Gowalmandi food street. I asked the paanwala there if he had any qimam. He laughed and asked where I was from. I said Bombay. He wouldn’t take money, which was fine, but he also insisted on feeding me the paan, which wasn’t.

Pakistanis don’t know how to make proper paan. Paanwalas are better in Karachi than in Lahore and that’s understandable given the pattern of migration.

I am one of those fascinated by the paanwala’s craft. I like watching them work. There was one in Surat who touched each little steel dabba six times and let it go before opening it. My friends called him “Disco paanwala" because of this movement. I think he had what is called OCD.

Most people don’t know good paan from great and reputations are built outside of pure quality. Muchhad paanwala in Mumbai is overrated, a triumph of marketing. The best paanwala in that city is the one next to Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, though I don’t know if he still sits there.

In Kolkata, the special is something called Gundi paan. This is available at the crossing of Hungerford Street and Theatre Road (Shakespeare Sarani).

Navratan Qimam, made by Baba, is, as I said, expensive and not easily available. Far more widely available is a brand called Kashmiri, which isn’t the real thing.

The finest way of asking for a proper paan was a line from a friend of my father’s, Hemant Desai. He asked for a paan “jis main qimam ho sachha aur tukda ho kachha".

The main question an eater of tobacco must ask himself is: Spit or swallow?

I am both civic-spirited and greedy, and so I swallow.

Famous Gujarati novelist Chandrakant Bakshi, an early and vociferous supporter of Narendra Modi, was my drinking buddy when I worked in Ahmedabad. We were talking one night of definitions and Chandrakantbhai said: “You’re Gujarati if you go down to buy paan every day after lunch." I confessed I was Gujarati. I forgot to add this definition of Bakshi’s when I wrote his obituary in 2006.

The allegation against A.A.K. “Tiger" Niazi, the Pakistani general who surrendered Bangladesh, made by the Hamoodur Rahman commission was that he spent too much energy in procuring paan. My respect for him immediately rose. In any case, the fundamentalists of Pakistan would see it differently if they knew that their beloved Mughals all loved paan.

The thing is part of our culture, Hindu and Muslim. It deserves more respect than we have given it.

How many PhDs theses have been written on its digestive properties? Probably none, and urban Indians have great contempt for their own culture.

In Bangalore, I buy my weekly stock from the man around the corner from Koshy’s. Not great, but passable. I noticed he stocked no cigarettes and asked why. “Yeh family jagah hai(This is a family place)," he said. He didn’t want the louts who hung around puffing cigarettes. The paan-eater by contrast was civilized.

Quite so.

Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.

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