Reconnecting with the paan

culture   Nov 19, 2019

By Manal Khan

It’s a November afternoon in the early 2000 – the chilly indoors contrast with a soft warm ray of sun peeking from the main window in my nano’s room. She’s found in the usual spot on her divan (a wooden bed), with a post-lunch paan in the making.

One by one, the ingredients are put together from a double storey steel box called a paan-daan. I recall this scene from the days of my childhood, from when I was not allowed to have paan, but would simply observe her intently throughout the whole process.

First comes the sarota, which splits the bigger pieces of betel nut into smaller, more chewable ones. Second comes the heart-shaped paan leaf, neatly cropped from the base, then laced with very little choona (limestone), as nano always said ‘it’s not worth it’, some kattha paste (chateau), betel nut in the centre, cardamom, nutmeg and with tiny silver sweets sprinkled on top, then wrapped into a perfect isosceles triangle, called a gilouri and tucked with a clove stem so it stays intact.

Photos by Manal Khan

The pride and satisfaction she would have in her eyes when handing out paans to everyone was unparalleled and one could tell, she has poured her heart out into the making of it.

Paan the snack, is consumed after a meal as a mouth freshener in the south Asian tradition. The word paan, comes from parna in Sanskrit, which means leaf. Having its roots in Hindu mythology and countless benefits in the ayurvedic medicine,

Importance of Paan in Pakistani culture

Paan migrated with the Muslim population as the partition of the subcontinent took place. The snack then became a part of the muhajir culture in Pakistan.

Aanchal Malhotra, the historian, recollects in one of her stories from the pre-partition India, that a paan made from skill and artiste was a measure of a lady’s grace. Narrating the story of a family that migrated to Multan from Patiala, brought along with them the paan-daan and khas daan – a small dome shaped metal object used to serve paan in the more affluent family gatherings. Paan accessories were also a part of a bride’s trousseau in elite families.

The fall of the paan

As a middle class, Urdu speaking, Muhajir always placed in the urban centre, Karachi; I am well exposed to the street food scene of the city, owing to my parents’ obsession for it. Having tried the two main types of paan, meetha and saada, I have to say, the meetha paan is not for me, but generally that is what people consume after a fulfilling nihari or barbecue.

It has gulkand, khopra, sweet balls, warq and some red tastemakers I have yet to identify. It is a treat for anyone with a sweet tooth.

However, not everyone my age feels the same way about consuming the snack. With paan being such an elaborate event, from the making of it to the spitting out of it in the ugaal-daan, spittoon – somewhere along the lines of adhering to a contemporary lifestyle, it became a not-so-decent characteristic to be seen with red lips or teeth.

The disconnect between us and our grandparents’ generation comes from the generation in between – our parents. In the midst of modernisation, our parents never really appreciated routinely paan consumption like the elders. Hence, we lost that personalisation that was associated with a home-made paan.

It just became a retail object in the street food arena, just like the traditionally rolled beedis faded out with the mass production of cigarettes.

Paan in Karachi

Last year, while campaigning for votes in Karachi, Shehbaz Sharif said, ‘I’ll make the paan-eating Kiraanchi like Lahore’, which did not seem to be in the best of taste. This lead to a discourse on social media about his appropriation of the Karachi accent, followed by his belittling of the muhajir working class. The statement stigmatises the consumption of paan, which the Urdu speaking muhajir community holds very close to their roots. 

For years, paan was sold at khokas (kiosks) along the roadside in different areas of Karachi. But overtime, buying from a khoka became an activity the upper class avoided.

Hence, in today’s time, paan has found itself to be ironically gentrified. Like the pompous chai dhabas across DHA, there are fancy, air-conditioned cafes for consuming paan too. For example, Panwaari, in Karachi, does a 24-carat gold plated paan, which costs about a thousand rupees and has been the talk of the town for a while now. Whereas in Khokhas, different varieties of paan range from Rs 20-100.

The question to be pondered upon is, why has consuming paan become a matter of class rather than something that is a part of our culture?