A writer pays homage to her late grandfather and an ancient culinary tradition in Delhi’s markets.

The first time I tried paan, I spat it out.

I was in first grade, on my way to school, a 30-minute bus ride from what was then my family home near Connaught Place in the center of British-built New Delhi. My uniform of white shirt and navy blue skirt was crisply ironed, my knee-length socks pulled up and shoes polished to a glossy black shine. Dropping me off at the bus stop, my father dipped his hand into his kurta (tunic) pocket and pulled out a small paper package.

Unfolding it, he told me he’d gotten sweet—or meetha—paan from the wedding he’d gone to the night before. He asked if I would like to try it. Always curious, I took a small bite and almost gagged at both its taste and texture. I took a swig from my water bottle to rinse my mouth. My father just laughed and popped the rest in his mouth.

Throughout South Asia, people chew paan as a mouth freshener. It’s an improbably genteel-sounding description for anyone who’s grown up watching men, their lips and teeth stained vermillion, spitting streams of reddened saliva onto the roadside. In actuality, a paan is a stimulant that’s been known to produce psychoactive effects.

Paan’s exact history in South Asia is unknown. The betel plant is not native to India, it is thought to have traveled from Southeast Asia to South India around 1500 BCE. While references to chewing betel leaves are absent from ancient Indian texts such as the Vedas or the Mahabharata, it appears frequently in the Kama Sutra, written in Sanskrit around the third century. Contrary to its reputation as an ancient sex-manual, the Kama Sutra is, in fact, a fairly boring treatise on society and sexuality, which suggests, among other things, that lovers offer each other paan as part of the seduction process. By the time medieval Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta arrived in India in 1334, paan was an important part of the courtly tradition.

In modern India, paan is everywhere. You buy it from a paanwallah or panwari, who also sells cigarettes and gutka (a type of chewing tobacco that’s flavored similarly to paan) alongside chewing gum and toffees. His roadside stall is usually a makeshift, colorful structure fitted with a small table lined with an array of paan-condiments. There will always be two small brass pots, or lotas, filled with chuna (slaked lime) and kaththa (a coffee-colored paste made out of catechu, an extract of acacia tree). Milar packets of gutka, chewing gum and mouth fresheners hang over the paanwallah’s head like streamers.

Paanwallah or panwari often also sells cigarettes, gutka, chewing gum, and toffees.

In its most basic (or saada, plain) form, paan consists of a spade-shaped betel leaf rubbed with an astringent mixture of chuna and kaththa folded around dried areca nut (supari). You might ask your paanwallah to embellish it with tobacco, a smear of an indefinably sweet-smelling paste called khushboo (literally ‘fragrance), a shower of fennel seeds, or a pod or two of green cardamom. Meetha—or sweet—paan may or may not include supari, its tanic astringency mellowed with gulkand (a thick rose-petal jam), fennel, cardamom, saffron, dessicated coconut, and candied fruit.

While eating paan is a part of the South Asian tradition, especially as a palate cleanser, it can take a little getting used to. It would be years before I started eating paan on a more regular basis, usually in the company of my Nanaji, my maternal grandfather.  

Nanaji was a gregarious man, famous in our family for his love for food, his huge laugh, and a belly that could accommodate both. Much to my grandmother’s chagrin, he spent countless hours on his scooter, searching out new places to eat or tracking down friends to gossip with after he finished his lectures on economics at Delhi University’s Motilal Nehru College. Every summer, his arms developed a deep tan where his short-sleeve shirts ended. He could hardly wait to change out of his professional’s uniform into an undershirt and lungi (sarong) the minute he came back home. In winter, he wore tweed coats, dark-grey pants, and a newsboy cap, always perched at a jaunty angle.

I learned to love the explosion of flavors: the sharp bite of the leaf, the hit of menthol, the satisfying sweetness of the gooey gulkand.

In the early 1980’s, my family lived in a row of government flats near Pandara Road, a short distance from the apartment in Connaught Place. The place was spacious but modest, a handful of rooms among the giant swathes of beige apartment blocks separated by small parks. When my sister and I heard the wasp-like buzz of my Nanaji’s Bajaj scooter, we would go hurtling out the front door, down the stairs, and hop onto the back. Nanaji would drive us to the nearby Pandara Road Market and buy us a small treat: an ice-cream, a chocolate bar, toffees like Parle Kismi or Cadbury Eclairs. On the rare occasion when Nanaji went to get a paan for himself, he’d also buy a meetha paan for me. Through my childhood and into my teens, I only ever ate my meetha paan minus the supari, and always thought of it as a sweet treat, a ritual that I shared with my Nanaji.

The meetha paan I came to prefer was simple, the leaf spread with the two pastes, a bit of gulkand, a pinch of menthol powder, and a dab of khushboo. It came in a compact triangle, unlike the giant, baroque concoctions one gets now. I learned to love the explosion of flavors: the sharp bite of the leaf, the hit of menthol, the satisfying sweetness of the gooey gulkand. It really did leave your mouth with a pleasing smell.

Photos of the author’s maternal grandfather—Nanaji.

By the late 90s, the whole family had moved closer together, clustered in the ever-expanding districts that, together, make up South Delhi. My parents and sister, brother and I lived in a government flat in a neighborhood called Bapu Dham (government officers and their families move around regularly, shifting through increasingly desirable neighborhoods as they move up in the ranks). My grandparents lived in their own flat in an area called Vasant Enclave, a 15-minute drive from our house, while my mausi (maternal aunt) lived in another government flat in an area called Moti Bagh, smack in the middle of us all. Her house became our de-facto meeting ground.

Always on his scooter, Nanaji would often swing by our house, and I would accompany him on his errands at Moti Bagh market, where Nanaji frequented a paanwallah under a big banyan tree. I would listen in lazily as the paanwallah and my Nanaji bantered about the weather, politics, or the rising costs of everything. Occasionally Nanaji would buy me a sweet paan, and I would chew it slowly, savoring the taste for as long as I could.

By then I was aware that paan was addictive and that it had been linked to oral cancer, particularly when combined with tobacco. There were public health announcements in newspapers, short public service announcements on radio and TV, and prominently placed posters across the city. Nanaji managed to avoid the paan-stained lips and teeth that I had come to find so off-putting, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t addicted. He carried a small bundle on his person most of the time, but I always loved the whiff of that particular paan smell when he would open it.

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Every now and again, I’d indulge in a meetha paan by myself. Part of me liked the slight rebellion; after all, young women from respectable backgrounds weren’t really supposed to be eating paan outside of festive occasions, say at a wedding or as an after-dinner treat with the family. There were images in popular culture of the paan-chewing woman: the madams and courtesans of Bollywood brothels and loudmouthed hussies who flashed red-toothed smiles with their knowing glances.

By the time I moved to Toronto in 1998, at the age of 21, my paan eating forays were already minimal. After arriving in Canada, I indulged even less, only on the rare occasion that I happened to be near a South Asian neighborhood, where paan was almost always sold alongside pirated DVDs. Most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to eat those North American-sized monstrosities, so different from the quick pop-in-your-mouth treats I’d grown up with. They just didn’t taste the same.

The most basic form of paan consists of a spade-shaped betel leaf rubbed with an astringent mixture of chuna and kaththa folded around dried areca nut.

Nanaji passed away on April 27, 2005 from stomach cancer. I saw him for the last time a year before his passing while visiting Delhi for a few months. He was undergoing chemotherapy and the treatment had left him listless. He had very little appetite. It was sad, given how much he had enjoyed eating. Even when he did eat, he’d often say to me, “I can’t taste anything. You taste it and tell me what it’s like.”

In those days, whenever I was in Moti Bagh I would go by Nanaji’s paanwallah. I didn’t say much beyond placing my order. I wasn’t sure he knew who I was. After Nanaji passed away, every time I went back to India, I visited his paanwallah, watching him grow older and older.

My most recent trip home was in May 2018 to get some shopping done for my brother-in-law’s wedding. I hadn’t been back in two years and was due for a visit anyway. My family doesn’t live anywhere close to Moti Bagh anymore, but when I told my mother that I wanted to go to Nanaji’s paanwallah, she immediately agreed.

It took us almost two hours to get to the market. After stepping out of the autorickshaw, I just stood there for a minute, taking it all in. In the 46-degree heat, sweat poured off me even before I’d moved a muscle. The market hadn’t changed much since my teenage years, when I’d gone there to buy school books and pens from the stationary store, eggs and bread from the small grocer in the corner, and cloth to stitch salwar-kameezes (Indian tunic and pants) from a store in the back.

A corner shop selling exotic fruits such as blueberries and mangosteen was new, but the stationary store owner was the same, his hair now a thatch of grey. I was looking for the paanwallah, the one beneath the banyan tree, who almost always dressed in white. My mother assured me that he was still in the market, though he’d moved to a different spot.

As we approached his new location, he watched us with a steady, curious gaze. I was nervous asking him whether he remembered Nanaji –after all, it had been more than a decade since he’d died—but the paanwallah’s face lit up with a smile.

“I am not sure if you remember me,” I began, talking in Hindi.

“Yes, you are Joshi-ji’s granddaughter,” he said, attaching the honorific ji to my grandfather, Navin Joshi’s, surname. I was pleasantly surprised. The last time I’d seen him had been six years earlier. We’d never exchanged more than a few words.

His name, he told me, is Ram Achal. He’s 62. He came to New Delhi from Faizabad, a small city in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, roughly 10 hours away by road, in 1970. Unable to find a job that he liked, he used to roam around the nearby Vasant Vihar neighborhood, sitting down to read near a paanwallah. That paanwallah offered to teach him the trade, and that’s how Ram got his start. He set up his small table in the Moti Bagh market in 1972. He had planted the banyan tree that I used to see him sitting under. Nanaji had been going to him since then.

Ram Achal runs his paan shop from a small table in the Moti Bagh market.

“Joshi-ji and other college lecturers used to come to me from the beginning, they were very good to me. Your grandfather was especially a very good-natured person,” he said. Turns out Nanaji used to frequent Ram’s store more than I knew. “He used to come by every day, two or three times. Going to college, coming back from college.”

Customers like Nanaji no longer exist, he said. Paan isn’t in fashion today. People either use it for religious ceremonies or auspicious occasions.

“These days people want something different. Even in cigarettes, people want flavored cigarettes. So with eating anything, they want something different. Some new flavor, and I don’t have the new-fangled flavors of today’s generation. I’m not interested to carry these new things, either,” he said. “This is like time-pass for me. I have never liked sitting at home, doing nothing. I think I will keep coming here until I die, or until my limbs give out.”

We spoke a little bit more, interrupted now and again by customers dropping in to buy loose cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Only one person asked for a paan, saada.

Before I left, I told Ram, “Bhaiyya, do paan lagaana.” (Please wrap two paans for me.) He smiled and his hands proceeded to do their dance: swooping two dripping leaves from a bucket of water, smearing them with slaked lime and catechu, the quick opening and shutting of a few containers, and the twirl of fingers sealing it all up in a small triangle. “Yaheen khaaoge, ya baandh doon?” (Will you have it here or take it to go?) He asked me just as he used to ask my Nanaji. To go please, I said. He bundled the two small triangles into a square of paper, and popped the parcel into a small sandwich bag.

In the rush of the rest of the day, I forgot the package in my pocket. Later that night, after dinner, looking for something sweet to eat, I remembered.

I bit it, savoring that same sharp bite of the leaf, mellow menthol, and sweet gulkand. This one was for you, Nanaji.