A Paean to the Paan

8561.ll-paan Pushpesh Pant in Open The Magazine:

Father loved his paan so much that at times Mother teased him that he loved the leaf more than he loved her. He would just smile and wink at us children and put another gilori (triangle of prepared paan) of his beloved magahi, plucked out of a silver pandibiya (paan box) in his mouth. He would never let any other variety ruin his delicate palate. Mother was not the only one who thought he carried this fuss too far. Didn’t other paan leaves have seductions of their own—the meetha patta, saunfia, kalkatia, kapoori, saanchi, jagannathi and mahoba?

Nothing could persuade Father to change his ways. He made do with magahi (a betel leaf from Magadh, Bihar) that he received via VPP in that pre-courier era from his trusted supplier, Chaurasiaji in Banaras. The kattha (brown paste applied to the leaf) he used was just the cream at the top, and he slaked chuna not in water, but in milk. The supari (betel nut) had to be dakhani—cooked in kattha and bone-hard. Not addicted to tobacco, he relished a few grains of muski daana produced by M/S Ittada Khan, Muttada Khan—perfumers from Kannoj. These were seeds of green cardamom dipped in tobacco water, then draped in chandi ka varq (silver foil) and then aromatised with a few strands of saffron. The name suggests the presence of a trace of aphrodisiac musk as well. The miniature bottles the stuff came in even looked like ittar (perfume) containers.

All this knowledge came much later. What mattered in the years before one’s loss of innocence was to ensure that one was rewarded with a grain of the forbidden delight after a long spell of tedious good conduct. Mother, of course, didn’t approve.

This was the beginning of my unending affair with this leaf of myriad delights; little did one know that paan is not native to this land and was imported from south-east Asia and called naag vallari, literally the ‘snake vine’. The name is an apt one, as the creeper does resemble the hood of a cobra.