“Last night my paan-seller was up to his tricks
as he slowly prepared paan leaves in his shop.
As he gave the people in his shop their leaves,
in return they surrendered to him their lives.”
The Sufi poet Amir Khusrao depicts in exquisite verse the paradigmatic protagonist of the Southasian street, the paanwallah – or seller of paan. Paan exists in a culinary category of its own: simultaneously a dessert, a stimulating narcotic, a post-meal palate cleanser and a herbal digestive. Its fresh, peppery, bitter, sweet-spicy flavour has refreshed Southasian mouths for a millennium.
The culture of paan manifests as a leaf-wrapped comestible, as red-stained streaks of spittle and as ramshackle stalls on street corners. The skilled producer of this complex victual, the paanwallah, is an omnipresent figure on bustling pavements, on the silver screen and in the entanglement of the lives that populate the Indian subcontinent. The paanwallah has always captivated me: during my childhood, when my father and I queued up at his stall to cleanse our mouths after a spicy meal, and now, as an observer with an ethnographer’s curiosity and a student’s homesickness.
The paanwallah is a fascinating figure – simultaneously a source of hedonistic refreshment, an arbitrator of social interaction, a curator of cultural ceremonies and a maestro of a culinary craft. His practice combines consumerist customisation with ritualistic gastronomic patrimony, while paan consumption extends beyond just mastication to become a communal rehearsal of the idiosyncrasies of society. Akin to the triangularity of the paan, this piece paints a triptych of the paanwallah – of the person, his place of work, and his practice – as the bustling heart of the subcontinental street, and at the cornerstone of urban publics, politics and poetics.
Paan: A primer
Paan primarily comprises a betel leaf, slaked lime (‘chuna’, or calcium hydroxide), areca nut, and tobacco. These elements are combined with innumerable combinations of preserves, cardamom and coconut shavings, mukhwas and dates. The nicotinic paan tingles the tongue and induces euphoria, while its abstemious meetha adaptation – prepared without areca nut or tobacco – cleanses the palate. Paan’s mild narcotic effect is best captured in the lyrics of a classic Bollywood song: “O khaike paan Banaras wala/ Khul jaaye band akal ka taala” (After eating Banarasi paan, the lock of the closed mind opens).
The enterprising paanwallah enables an agora of civic discussion.
A patron of the paanwallah picks – sans menu – from hundreds of combinations of paan, yet seemingly always has a predetermined preference. Paan varies by geography and vendor, with variable ingredients, levels of sweetness, qualities of leaf, and brands and refinements of tobacco. The Indian writer Shashi Tharoor, in The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone, describes the taxonomic range of this cultural motif, contending that “the distinctions between a Calcutta patta and a Banarasi mitha are at least as significant as those between a Bordeaux and a Burgundy”. But “paan chewing is too down to earth to have evolved the same vocabulary as its French counterpart. It is time we established our own paan columnists to wax lyrical about the ‘strong body’ and ‘delicate coconut fragrance’ of a 2007 Madrasi beeda, contrasting it, perhaps, with the ‘heady bouquet’ and ‘lingering aftertaste’ of a silver-wrapped Mumbai concoction.”
Over the ages paan has inevitably become ritualised. Paan exchanges are used to celebrate childbirth in Maharashtra, welcome guests in Rajasthan, and commence courtships in Assam. Both a treat that symbolises merriment and partnership and a regular pastime that allegorises Heideggerian ‘everydayness’, the humble paan finds itself within the dialectic of dynamism in the Southasian city.
Just as paan as a comestible exists in a category of its own, the physical space it occupies in the city is also unique. Nestled between tea shops and greengrocer’s handcarts, the stalls of paanwallahs are ubiquitous in Southasian streets. Take, for example, Panditji’s paan stall in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai. The quintessence of a paan shop, it is a hole in the wall sited among the disorderliness of a street corner and bordered by a half-open gutter. The cramped nook is illuminated by either an extremity of light or a single dull lightbulb, “hastily connected to the adjacent shop” (as remarked by the researcher and academic Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria).
The stall is sheltered from the elements with a blue-black tarpaulin hastily folded over the roof – and altered slightly with every monsoon downpour. Within this brimming box sits Panditji, always cross-legged, upon a plastic-covered cushion that has cracked and veined over years of Atlassian labour. Boxes, tins and containers of ingredients encircle him like offerings spread before a sitting idol. His fortress is built of stacked boxes of cigarettes, cylinders of betel nuts, shakers of tobacco powder, tins of thick kimam (tobacco paste), jars of chutney, wrappers of gulkand (sweet rose preserve) and a thaali of spices. The eclectic variety of brands, qualities and strengths is a promise from the paanwallah that he has your preferred accoutrement. To his side are bushels of verdant leaves and a brass vessel with fresh betel floating in water.
Before the paanwallah is a piece of plywood that acts as his workbench. There, almost like an architect at a drafting table, he lays out his tools. Spoons, spatulas and wooden sticks either lie arranged or float in open containers. The paanwallah is armed with a heavy iron sarota, or betel nut crusher, depicted in the perfumer and writer Jahnvi Nandan’s and the photographer Shivani Gupta’s Pukka Indian: 100 Objects that Define India as a “samurai’s sword … a product of alchemy”. Under the counter is the repository for his earnings, slid carefully into a half-open metal lockbox after each transaction. At times, in lieu of change, a wrapped chocolate or hard mint is offered to the patrons, who readily accept it.
The paanwallah plasters his interests and affinities onto the walls inside his shop. These wide-ranging backdrops are inventively imagined in artworks such as Bhupen Khakhar’s wonderful patchwork, Pan Shop No. 1. A typical background for a paanwallah could include framed prints of Hindu gods (as is depicted in Khakhar’s masterpiece) or of Mecca, a ‘3D’ poster of generic artwork, an image of the Taj Mahal (spotted at a New Delhi paanwallah), the flag of a political party (sighted in Birbhum, in Bengal) or a TV for watching cricket (in bourgeois establishments like Panditji’s). The paanwallah’s stall is garlanded by a colourful patchwork of tobacco and spice packets. Panditji hides behind this purdah of bright wrappers, each printed with edgy brand names and graphic images of tar-ridden lungs.
Within these rigidities of gendered, caste-determined employment and the hierarchies of family enterprise, disciplined apprenticeship is commonplace.
Behind or beside the paanwallah – at a spot close enough to be convenient but hidden enough to not be an eyesore – is the designated social spittoon. Possibly a pothole, gutter, or stairwell at the fringes of the paanwallah’s stall, this public spot is the nominated beneficiary of the jets of red-stained spit produced post paan chewing. The academic Debashree Mukherjee, in Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City, describes “paan-stained, draughty stairwell(s)” as the “definition of Mumbai.” Sanitation workers gave up decades ago on the Sisyphean task of trying to clean these blotchy places, leaving them permanently stained with paan spit.
Smokers are also always drawn to the paanwallah and have become a permanent part of the landscape of the paan stall. A result of this omnipresent congregation is the permanent cloud of bitter smoulder that shrouds the paanwallah, making the air around him thick with the smells of acrid tobacco, musky sweat and pungent spices.
To stand and wait at the paanwallah’s storefront is as much a delight for the ears as it is for the eyes. As I wait for my paan (a maghai jodi, for those curious) at my go-to paanwallah in Navi Mumbai, I hear a bustling cacophony – the shouting of orders by customers, the mechanical clinking of metal cutters breaking open betel nuts, the clang of coins after every purchase, the distant blare of traffic, and the animated banter of the customers. The young paanwallah at the trendy establishment, Lala, has rote-learned each regular customer’s order and takes great pride in announcing yours as you approach his store. Within this chaos, the enterprising paanwallah enables an agora of civic discussion. With tobacco as a social lubricant and five or ten minutes of paan-chewing time to kill, patrons develop a gossiping camaraderie between them. At Lala’s paan shop, conversations begin with “sab theek?” (all good?), and end with him fostering a vagabond community, where paan is shared both materially and also with the senses.
He wages a daily battle against the municipal commission driven to uproot his ‘illegal’ establishment, and he is, each day, prepared to oil the gears of bureaucracy by whatever means necessary.
The agenda of discussion at Lala’s shop is far-ranging, from cricket to politics to neighbourhood affairs and lewd jokes. One weary patron lambasts his manager while a group makes jokes at the expense of an absent regular. Within the clandestine culture that draws in forsaken addicts hiding from social critics, discussing one’s familial matters is deemed impolite. Within the culture of conversations at Lala’s, for example, the matters of one’s home are personal. All these conversations occur in a distinctive phonological dialect as patrons rotate between chewing and spitting, puffing and chatting. The scholar Jeanne Fitzsimmons, in Negotiating Modernity, evokes this language of choice for paan-chewers as a “very distinctive form of Hindi (or Bengali),” spoken with the head tilted backwards, like “someone trying to carry on a conversation with a mouthful of soup”.
The paanwallah is a nerve centre for the circulation of information, a source of comfort and community for shunned denizens partaking in social ‘vices’. The magnetism of the paanwallah also makes his stall a landmark for topophiles, who place the kiosk centrally in their personal cartographies and memories. The paanwallah’s stall populates the urban dwellers’ mental maps and their directions often stipulate a ‘left turn from the paanwallah.’
The paanwallah is a seasoned tobacconist who maintains a long-standing family business of skilled culinary craftsmanship. While historical sources describe the roles of women in paan ceremonies within royal courts and pre-colonial households, the present-day occupation of the urban paanwallah appears to be exclusively male. To any consumer of paan, this gender exclusion is likely starkly obvious. Explanations for this divergence, however, are far less clear. Why are there such few paanwallis? Possible causes include the discrimination against women writ large in the workforce, the cultural linkage of paan consumption and preparation with masculine ideologies, and the societal tendency of women to circumvent occupations that involve contact with a largely male customer base.
Within these rigidities of gendered, caste-determined employment and the hierarchies of family enterprise, disciplined apprenticeship is commonplace. Mehrotraji, considered one of Lucknow’s finest paanwallahs, described to me the significance of having family members or village acquaintances in the trade. When ready to learn, the novitiate paanwallah shadows a consummate master. He then practises the trade as an apprentice for many years until he is ready to set out on his own. He studies the mundane, such as how one washes the leaves to ensure freshness, and the highly specific, such as how one memorises the complex preferences of regular customers to tailor-make the green pouch to their taste every time. The paanwallah must both be a social butterfly and possess street-smarts and shrewdness. Quick-wittedness is required for running a profitable enterprise on the competitive urban street, and the paanwallah navigates negotiations with civic bodies and extortionate police officers, conflicts with disorderly customers, and the unpredictability of monsoon deluges. The positionality of the paanwallah exposes his physical habitat to precariousness. He subsists within the grey area of property law and the grey economy of an unchecked market.
While many, like Mehrotraji and Lala, have taken to renting storefronts resembling conventional establishments, others, like Panditji, still operate from holes-in-the-wall or wooden boxes under trees. The unique nature of the profession presents the paanwallah with a series of legal hoops to jump through, such as the Indian CoTPA (Cigarette and other Tobacco Products Act), a tobacco control law that criminalises the sale of loose cigarettes and public smoking. He wages a daily battle against the municipal commission driven to uproot his ‘illegal’ establishment, and he is, each day, prepared to oil the gears of bureaucracy by whatever means necessary. Despite this barrage of difficulties, the enterprising paanwallah perseveres and somehow continues to populate every second street corner of the urban subcontinent.
He then proceeds to crush, unwrap, spread, smear, dash, dab, blend, mix, and fold with the virtuosity of a concert pianist, producing a neat little triangular parcel.
Beyond his skills and street-smartness, the paanwallah’s personality and disposition are a big factor in the success of his business. Consumers often prioritise the personality of a paanwallah over the proximity of the shop, and a paanwallah strives to know his customers well if he wishes to be successful. A patron at Mehrotraji’s shop, for instance, takes a detour from his daily walk home for the familial company and the Nawabi paan. So significant is the paanwallah’s personality that some have attained celebrity status within the already star-studded society of Southasia.
Mumbai’s Muchhad Paanwallah, famed for his iconic handlebar moustache, is a popular figure, his stall frequented by locals and tourists in the city. The extroverted paanwallah accommodates customers from all walks of life – from rowdy goondas to nervous bhadralok – and is adept at communicating with great linguistic breadth and varying levels of respectfulness. He is both a pedagogue, providing the first puff to novices sneaking out of home, and also, as the novelist Ardashir Vakil memorialises in Beach Boy, a reliable purveyor equipping seasoned chain-smokers with “the freshest brand of smuggled American fags.”
The old-school paanwallah, as chronicled by the scholars Leo Coleman and Nina Berman in Food ethnographic encounters, stimulates banter among the crowds by “telling stories about the effects of the various seeds and tiny pills they added to the individual paan.” Beyond gossip, however, the paanwallah can be a trusted member of the community, and those in need of counsel often seek his advice. Well-informed, he knows the ins and outs of the city and is a frequent source for members of the police intelligence department. When the paanwallah holds court, a palate cleanser will cost a few cents on the street corner, but advice costs nothing.
The practice of paan, in production and consumption, begins with green leaves in the hands of the craftsman and ends as red spittle on the pavement. Lucknow’s Mehrotraji, on hearing the customer’s commandments, unravels a betel leaf. He then proceeds to crush, unwrap, spread, smear, dash, dab, blend, mix, and fold with the virtuosity of a concert pianist, producing a neat little triangular parcel. However, this method is not standardised in the slightest. Some paanwallahs, such as those at Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach, make a new-fangled and trendy ‘fire’ paan and choose to stuff the parcel directly into the mouth of an unexpected customer. Avant-garde paanwallahs, such as Lala in my neighbourhood, enjoy experimenting with the pseudo-culinary art form to create such inventions as the chocolate paan. Analogous to the chocolate-covered strawberry, the betel leaf parcel is coated in milk chocolate and chilled to create a sweet-peppery-nicotinic creation that rivals (and possibly surpasses) the Belgian bon-bon.
The paanwallah’s stall is a place of rest and recreation, where patrons pause from the rapid pace of the cosmopolitan city. A scene at a Kolkata paanwallah on a June afternoon captures this change of tempo. During their lunch break, office workers pour out of stained white buildings and crowd around the paanwallah’s table. The paanwallah, a young man in an ‘NYC’ t-shirt, has anticipated the routine of the herd, having pre-prepared the most popular orders. He mechanically hands out green parcels and single cigarettes, occasionally pausing his ritual to modify the paan to accommodate a finicky customer. The crowd has only been serviced when each customer’s mouth is full, either with paan or from the smoke of a roll-up. Continuing the conversations they began at their cubicles, they spill onto the pavement: some office-workers head down the street for their fill of crunchy jhal muri and others purposelessly loiter until the break ends and they are chastised by the capitalistic clock.
Nestled between tea stalls and greengrocer’s handcarts, the stalls of paanwallahs are ubiquitous in Southasian streets.
An evening at a paanwallah in Old Delhi, meanwhile, is a laid-back affair. An uncle with a brown-stained beard sits on a stool at the brightly-lit storefront, deep in thought. College students on a study break laze on their scooters, chewing on suttas. One of them breaks from the group to answer a phone call from his mother. A couple gets off a motorbike and walks up to the paanwallah. The girl asks for two Marlboro Golds, civilly addressing the paanwallah as ‘bhaiya’ (brother). They linger around the motorbike, cigarettes in hand, barely speaking as traffic rushes past them. Just like that, the paanwallah epitomises the distinctly Southasian tradition of ‘timepass.’
The process of consuming and spitting is a testament to the materiality of paan. The parcel is placed, in its entirety, inside the mouth – and the wad melts in the maw. The carcinogenic cud is then chewed while making conversation until it is either swallowed or spat out. Paan promises pleasure in temporality. Often, the paanwallah also joins in on this ritual. When Mehrotraji is asked whether he chews paan, he replies, “Ji ha, khaata bhi hu aur khilata bhi hu” (Yes, of course! I eat and make others eat). The paanwallah offers an avenue for escapism, where the act of getting a paan allows one to leave their domestic and professional burdens behind, if only for a ‘paan’s-worth’ of time. Similarly, the gossip at the paanwallah’s is chewed up and spat out, an apt metaphor for the ingestion and expulsion of chit-chat in an information-loaded metropolis. This impermanence highlights the socio-cultural perception of paan as an ‘immoral’ recreation – the consumer spits out the paan to erase the evidence and returns to their home or office. All they leave behind is a speckle of brown-red saliva muddled with others’ drool in a gully and a faint stain on their teeth that brands them, ever so slightly, as a customer of the paanwallah.
In the cast of customers he brings together – not dissimilar to his technique in the preparation of paan – the paanwallah brings together a diverse group of the masses, combines them, and creates a sense of temporary, escapist pleasure that allows for ‘rebirth’ within the complex realities of the Southasian street.
Bilal Moin is from Mumbai and conducts research at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs. He tweets at @TheBilalMoin.