“paan” chewer in the streets of Guwahati, Assam, India
From the experience of traveling in the Northeast states of India, there was one thing that caused a strong impression in the memory of the sensations: the paan… the smell, the color, the gestures, the sound of spit and red trace left on the ground.
But what is the paan!?! Basically, paan is areca nut, whose appearance resembles a nutmeg, cut into small pieces and wrapped in betel leaf, a green vine leaf that has stimulant effects. To this mixture, is often added tobacco (chewing tobacco) and lime (calcium hydroxide … yes, the same as the lime which is used to cover walls.
The areca nut, resembles much the nutmeg, both in size and in the appearance of the fruit, but rather born of a tree is the fruit of a palm tree, whose nuts grow in clusters at the top of a thin, high trunk.
The betel leaf is carefully folded in the form of a small rectangle or triangle shape, keeping the areca nut mix inside, and placed in the mouth between the cheek and the teeth. This “pack” is slightly chewed so slowly release the juice that gives gradually a reddish color to the saliva, which extends to the corners of the mouth and lips. After a few years of use, it results, in the decayed teeth and stained red, as well as a certain addition, due to the stimulation property of betel leaf. Mixed with tobacco, it increases the carcinogenic effects of the areca nut.
The paan produces a strong salivation, which makes their consumers have frequent need to spit, which is often made in a showy way, a jet of red saliva, which leaves a trail through the streets, sidewalks and even on the walls!
Being very popular in India, the habit of consuming paan lies spread by all Asian countries, being more evident in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma, with this last country being the place where the presence of paan is a constant being also chewed by women and the children.
But weeks spent through some of the northeastern states of India, like Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya, left a stronger mark of this phenomenon. Here, perhaps more than in any other regions of India, areca nut “rules”, being even chewed without betel leaf or any other mixture.
Being predominantly a male habit, common among the poorest, it is a mark image among bus and tuk-tuks drivers; but in Northeast India the paan is also quite popular among women, and its cross-consumption to the various social classes, not being surprising to find a shepherd in Majuli Island spiting paan or the receptionist of a hotel in Mokokchung with corners of the mouth marked in red by the areca nut.
The chewing tobacco consumption is also very popular, being mixed with lime in order to moist the tobacco dry leaves, forming a paste which is placed near the gums. The tobacco preparation, rubbing the mixture in the hand palm with the index finger, being in the end slightly beaten to become flat and compact, are one of the most preset gestures… in the cities or in the villages, on the streets or in shops, on buses and trains… everywhere!!!
Despite the chew of tobacco be unpleasant, as it produces the frequent need of spit, the paan with its sweetish smell created, after three weeks of traveling through northeastern India, a certain distaste and aversion, for the combination of the spitting sound with the jet red saliva discharged, which doesn’t strive to be discreet or delicate, making the act of spitting an art, where the trajectory and distance of the red track left on the ground, is a matter of pride.
And a little everywhere, always come up white marks left by lime stuck to the fingers, that is rubbed on doorposts of the paan shops, or on the seats of a bus or a train…
And the smell also left a strong mark on my memory, with hotel rooms with paan presence, and long trips made by bus or the sumo, in the company of enthusiastic paan chewers, whose sweet smell pervades the space, and my field of vision regularly crossed by someone that need to spit out by the window.
A negative but strong memory that created in me a disgust of the paan, which my senses can not remain indifferent.