In India, a tough nut to crack

Sun Journal

Paan: Despite warnings from health advocates, use of the mildly stimulating after-meal treat is growing.

April 30, 1999|By Mark Drajem | Mark Drajem,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW DELHI, India -- Steeping in a dented brass pot on the far left of the marble counter are the leaves of the betel pepper. Sham Arora spends 14 hours a day behind this counter, churning these leaves into an Indian delicacy. It has been his life's work, and his father's and grandfather's before him.

Fifty years ago Arora's grandfather started selling "paan" from this shop on the chaotic streets of northern Delhi. What Arora makes today is just the same as what his grandfather, and other "paan-wallahs," as they are called, have been concocting for hundreds of years.

But the juicy after-dinner treat, a long-time favorite of Indians, is under threat from public-health activists on one side and cigarette marketers on the other.

Despite the threats, paan is thriving. There are thousands of shops like Arora's on streets from Calcutta to Bombay. Three times more people use paan in India than smoke cigarettes, and its use is rising, according to research done by the Tobacco Institute, a cigarette company-backed organization.

In fact, despite the influx of cigarettes, in much of Asia the betel nut -- a mild stimulant, also called areca nut -- is still king. Betel nuts are harvested from palm trees and chewed by millions of people from India to Vietnam, American Samoa to Guam. In north Indian villages, visitors are greeted with a cup of tea, and when they leave are given a paan.

Arora dips his hand into the brass pot, pulling out a palm-sized leaf, its edges already clipped clean. Each morning Arora gets a shipment of 1,000 of these leaves, and he starts his day by clipping their edges, turning them into neat triangles. The leaves have a sharp, bitter taste.

From the pots lying open along the counter before him, Arora spreads lime paste, and another paste that looks like Thousand Island salad dressing. No one seems to know its English name. Then Arora starts laying on the hard ingredients, first the fluorescent-red betel nuts, next coconut, cardamom and fennel seeds. Most people mix tobacco into their paan. For those who like sweet paan, it comes with a final, plump dollop of a rose-petal goo.

With two quick folds the sloppy mess turns into an elegant green triangle the size of a large but squashed strawberry. Arora hands it over, and the recipient inserts it into his mouth, holding it inside his cheek. After a moment the paan will turn his mouth into a red sea of juices; he'll turn and spit the juice. The nuts will stay tucked in his cheek for an hour or more.

Asked about paan, Indians begin to rave. Typically taken after a meal, paan freshens the breath. It helps digestion. It slows aging. Chew the betel nuts so the juice mixes with saliva, and then inhale the sweet smell, Arora advises.

"It's a kind of nectar," he says delicately.

An aphrodisiac?

Arora beams the red-tinged smile of a longtime paan chewer, and nods.

According to Indian literature, not only does the betel nut induce ardor, it kills germs and tames foul body odor. The god Krishna and the beautiful Nur Jahan, for whom the Taj Mahal was built, are both said to have loved paan.

Even public-health advocate T. R. Roy, whose full-time job is organizing against cigarettes, says that the betel leaves are a great source of vitamins.

Still, critics have stepped up their attacks on paan recently. At the heart of their complaint: Paan is usually mixed with tobacco. Arora and other paan-wallahs estimate that three-quarters of the paan they sell contains tobacco. In a lawsuit brought in New Delhi's High Court recently to ban all pre-packaged paan mixtures (also called gutka), public-health advocates put the incidence of tobacco even higher.

A public-health calendar put out by the government of one Indian state presents a terrifying new horror each month for the chewer of paan laced with tobacco. A stunning growth -- bumps multiplying out of bumps -- pops from the side of one man's face. Another has a hole from chin to cheek, exposing his teeth in an unending grimace. Others' teeth have been eaten away.

The calendar's point is that paan causes cancer. According to the World Health Organization, 50,000 people a year die in India from mouth cancer caused by chewing paan. India has the second-highest incidence of mouth cancer in the world.

Even taken without tobacco, paan has its detractors. Nur Jahan may have loved paan, but visitors to the Taj Mahal are forbidden to chew it. The betel-nut saliva would stain the marble. Roads and walls of India are marked with the unremovable stain of paan.

The mouths of India are similarly stained. Hard-core paan chewers are immediately recognizable by their red-stained teeth -- and sometimes lopsided smiles, if the teeth on one side have been eaten away. Dentists advertise their "teeth bleaching" services to the obvious clientele.

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