Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The History of Paan

This article is dedicated to my Father. He writes for several magazines and newspapers. He was asked to present a paper on old Mumbai to the professors pursuing PhD from Mumbai University. Little information has been documented on the history of Paan and Tobacco. I had access to his research material.  I have made an attempt to write on the subject and present some interesting facts about the history of Paan & Tobacco in Mumbai. Hope you enjoy the post.

Let me take you back to the days when Mumbai was actually known as Bombay. This Bombay had various customs and traditions; one of its oldest “Shauk’ or habit has been Chewing Paan.
Unlike today consumption of alcoholic drinks was not accepted by society as part of the culture. Thanks to the modern lifestyle now socializing or even discussing business over a drink has become socially acceptable. Today we tend to look down upon people who are seen chewing paan, tobacco in public. However in the olden times consumption of paan, smoking of Hukka and sniffing snus had certain social acceptance. For the erstwhile Maharashtrian community eating paan or using snus had the same importance in a man’s life as Haldi Kumkum for women. It was good etiquette to offer paan/supari to guests not only after meals but also during a casual discussion. In North India they used the line “Saale ka hukkapaani bandh karo” to outcaste anyone.

Hindi films, especially the ones based on the mafia have made the Maharashtrian term “Supari Dene” (“Supari Dena” in Hindi) very popular. In the olden days it was a practice offer important job to someone very trustworthy by offering him a supari as the token of contract confirmation along with monetary advance. After completion of the task both parties would break the supari and the balance payment would be made. While inviting musicians, Tamasha troupes, Drama troupes, Singers, Wrestlers for performing at their house or villages there was an old custom of giving supari. In the old wrestling style, the body was covered by oil and one of the ways to grab the opponent was by catching his ears during the initial huddle. One of the first tasks after enrolling a wannabe wrestler in the ‘Akhaada’ was to break the bone/muscle in the ears. They would place a supari in his ears and then punch it hard causing the small muscle to crack, thereby making the ears flexible and difficult to hold on to.

There was a difference in eating a paan on your own and being offered one as a mark of respect. At the Kothas (Mujra houses and not brothels), prior to the commencement of the dance performance, the prettiest of the girls would serve Paan to her beloved customer, actually feed it to him rather than serving it.  If the Tawaaif herself prepared the paan and fed it to her customer, it was considered as an act of showing respect and also as a romantic gesture. There are many folk songs, Lavanis, film songs written on this act. Now managers bowing down and shaking your hand at ladies/dance bars have replaced the Paan culture and twaaifs.

In 19th century people used to eat twenty paans and smoke one kattal (bundle) of 20 Bidis per day. In Girgaon Khetwadi Galli no 2 there was a 250 years old paan bazaar. Recently it was shifted to Chuna Bhatti. Majority of the Paan wholesale dealers in Mumbai were Jains and Brahmins and all retailers were Vaishya-vanis. They maintained complete secrecy while deciding rates of paan by covering their fingers under a handkerchief and making hand gestures that only the dealers from their network could decipher. These wholesalers sourced raw green Nagvel paan from Mandva, Kelve, Mahim and Janjira. Raw paans are used in religious functions to offer Vida Dakshina to Brahmins. After removing the ripe parts, small pieces of paans were sold as Kapta paan to poor people at cheap rate. In 1850 there were 350 paan gaddis (Paan Shops) in Bombay. Every small lane had a paan shop at its entrance. Paan vendors used to sit on a small mattress (Gaddi) and prepare paans for their customers. Hence their shops were known as Paanachi Gaddi. They had respect in the society. In British regime they worked like secret informers for police also helped newcomers in finding out their addresses. This however has not changed. Despite GPS technology and cellular phones the local paan shop still remains the best place to seek directions.

From 1850 Pune was the main supplier of ripe yellow paans to Bombay. These paans became popularly known as Puna Masala or Puna Peela. There was variety of Supari; White (Paandhari supari from Shrivardhan), Red (Tambadi Supari from Vasai) Fulbardi, Chikni etc. These Vaishyavani vendors would skillfully break supari into pieces like sugar cubes, slice it like thin onion flakes, cut it like saffron sticks.

In last century every household had brass paan container known as dabba or Tabak. Rich families had silver tabak. During festivals even women and children were allowed to chew paans. Senior citizens would keep small Khalbatta with them to crush and soften the paan. Majority of people were Tobacco (Tambakhu) paan eaters.  To spit the Tambakhu juice and remains of paans, people used spittoons, which were called Tasta or brass pickdani. When outside home, these people like rest of India used all open spaces as toilets. These paan eaters used every possible nook and corner on the roads, staircases and electric poles to spit on. Unfortunately this habit has not died till now. The red paan stains are the default interior color of most buildings around the country.

The Portuguese brought Tobacco to Bombay, but it got popular during British Regime. To sale tobacco and snus one was required to procure a license from government. In 1860 the Government earned revenue of Rs. Two-Lakh from taxes imposed on sale of tobacco. Bhadoch, Surat, Dharwad, Nipaani, Miraj and Paandharpur were the main suppliers of Tobacco. There was variety of tobacco available on paan gadi – like thick roti, saffron, rope, dark black etc. At the end of 19th century in small paper pouches Gaichhap, Kuberchhap branded tobacco was introduced in the market. It was known as Jarda. Paandharpuri tobacco because of its strong taste remained as the local favorite. Pune, Sinnar (Nashik) and Solapur were the main suppliers of Bidis to Bombay market. Shivaji, Sambhaji, Ghoda Chhap, Hatti Chhap, Ganesh, Bijban, Kala Dhaga Tokdi Bidi were the popular brands among laborers, Gujaratis, Marwaris and Muslims. During those times hand made aagpetya (Match boxes) were available. While lighting a matchstick there were chances of burning your fingers since the matches were not carburized. WIMCO Matchbox Compaany from Ambarnath was the first to introduce carburized matches in the market.

During this period along with paan supari other household items such as matchboxes, Candles, soap bars, Post cards, telegram forms, and medicines like Aspro, Anacin, limlet candies, toffees, and biscuits were available in these paan shops. Their biggest clients were laborers, mill workers, dockworkers, Mathadis, safai kamgaars and hawkers. First work shift of the erstwhile mill workers started at 7.00 am. Every morning vendors from Vasai would come with vegetables and milk, newspapers at their designated business streets. Religious people would visit temples in early morning. To cater to this early morning clientele these paan shops started opening their shops early in the morning at 5-5.30 AM

In the beginning of 20th century cigarette companies setup their business in Mumbai. The popular brands being Pivala Hatti, Charminar, Barkley, Scissor, Panama, capstan, Cavender, Passing Show etc. Filter cigarettes came in very late. Rich fashionable people used to carry fancy cigarette cases containing 20 cigarettes. Some people would buy imported loose tobacco and cigarette paper and would roll their own cigarettes. Film artiste like Motilal, Pyarelal Santoshi would fill tobacco in Rs. 100 note and smoke. Western cultured people would smoke pipe or Chirut (cigar). Film artiste particularly villains like Ashok Kumar, Pran, Ajit made cigarette smoking popular among youngsters. In 1937 a film called Passing Show was released to promote Passing Show cigarette. These were the early signs of covert advertising/branding. Today people talk about branding alcoholic drinks/cigarette’s name with a bottle of soda or mineral water or music albums, but this practice was first implemented way back in 1937.  In his school days my father saw Dev Anand’s film Hum Dono. He was so impressed by his grace and style of smoking cigarette; he enacted his smoking style in front of a mirror. He was caught red handed and what followed were 5 rounds of freestyle wrestling type thrashing from my grand father. In olden day’s only ladies from labor class used to eat tobacco and smoke bidis. Around 1950 onwards people saw vamp or club dancers from Hindi films smoking cigarettes. Nadira, Shakeela, Helen were stylish cigarette smokers. Today’s mod generation ladies regularly carry packs of Marlboro lights in their purses. Even today the orthodox attitude prevails. It’s common for females to hop into a rickshaw, buy two cigarettes and make the rickshaw drive around in circles while they finish smoking them.

Time and society has changed in last twenty-five years. Textile mills closed down, Thousands of textile workers became jobless, wholesale markets were shifted to Navi Mumbai, people realized the importance of education, and youngsters felt smoking bidis and eating paan supari was below their dignity or social status. Subsequently they changed their habits and switched over to cigarette, lighter and paanpatti from bidi, matchbox and desi paan. Due to increase smuggling many foreign brands of cigarettes and lighters were now available in Mumbai. Mangalori and Keralites entered in this new business and built stalls all over Mumbai. People from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar started Paanpatti Thelas (shops) at every nook and corner. These 250 years old paan gaddi vendors started loosing business and they had no option but to close down their ancestral business. Some of them converted their paan gaddis to general stores. Few gaddis survived only in laborer predominant areas like Parel, Lalbaug, Byculla and dock areas. ‘Paan gaddi,’ one of the oldest businesses dominated by 100% Marathi vendors almost came to a standstill by the end of 21st century; but even today out of ten days of Ganesh Utsav, Lalbaugcha Raja Ganesh Utsav Mandal reserves one day only for Paan Supari program.

Paan Patti was like a younger fashionable sister of desi paan. Please note that Paan-Patti was the term used for the modern paan and not the paan shop. Paan patti simply means paan that is folded neatly after stuffing it with all the possible ingredients.  The British East India Company closed down their business in Surat and Bombay became the main trade center. With the industrial growth of Mumbai, Marwadis, Baniyas, Gujarathis and Muslims came to Bombay and settled near Fort area. They were the great paan lovers.

Till 1860 there was no paan patti shop in Mumbai. This paan patti business started flourishing since 1870 from areas like Bhuleshwar, Cotton Exchange, Pydhonie, CP Tank and Kalbadevi. During this period Bombay was getting ripe pila paans only from Puna. When main cities of India were connected by railway, paans from Banaras, Gorakhpur and Calcutta were brought in to Bombay. Slowly Kashmiri Kimam, Uttar Pradesh, Rajastani Paan masala and scented chewing tobacco came to Bombay. Girgaon chowpatty became tourist center. People from Uttar Pradesh had foresight and the vision, they built stalls near the seashore in the sand itself and started Paan patti and Bhel puri business. Subsequently they have encroached Mumbai city, now along with the beach you can find them in every nook and corner of the city. The Paanwaala and bhelwala bhaiyya have now become part of the routine Mumbai life.  

There was a saying that “Paan Khaana amir aiyyash rangeele logon ka shauk hai”. The rich people of Mumbai had huge ancestral properties. Their day would start in the evening. They would wear Lukhnavi kurta/Sherwani, tie gajra around the wrist, chew maghai paan and with a gang of servants set out for their evenings at mujra houses. In those days congress house (back then below pavan pool, today’s Kennedy bridge) or Bachhchubhai ki wadi at Foraas road were some of the famous mujra destinations. Filmy songwriter Shailendra has described these paan lovers in his song –

Paan khaye saiya hamaro,
Savli surtiya hoth lal lal,
hai hai ye malmal ka  kurta,
malmal ke kurte par chhinte laal laal.

There are many filmy songs based on paan eating, right from Shailendra’s classic to Amitabh’s Khaike paan Banaras wala and its new adaptation in a Farhan Akhtar film -Don.

Making a good paan is a skilled job. In paan shop you can always hear the radio playing, the customera pressurizing the paanwaala to take their order first, some customers while sitting in cars place orders, but this paan vendor works like a yogi with full concentration on his job. He cannot afford to make even a petty mistake, because the success of any paan shop depends on the consistency of quality of paan that he serves. Ingredients are same, process of making paan is almost the same, and even then its taste differs from shop to shop. This is the reason why a real paan lover will not purchase paan from unknown vendor. There are people who will visit heir regular Paanwaala first thing in the morning and stock for the day rather than risk buying a paan from an unknown vendor. It’s interesting whether this can be termed as brand loyalty? There is no brand at work but the paan making skills of an individual. In Mumbai there is an unwritten rule that items like Paan and Bhel are to be prepared under your personal supervision, as per your taste if the vendor is unknown to you.  Your regular Paanwaala would know your taste. He just needs to know whose paan he has to prepare, that’s all, he will prepare exactly the same. The taste of the paan is vital. Paan lover’s mood totally depends on its taste.

For a hardcore paan lover the people who make/bring his paan are always fixed. They will not assign this job to any new person. These people have a tendency of getting angry if the paan is not prepared as per their taste.  While chewing paan they will not like to talk with anybody unless it is very important. The usual routine is, to bite the bottom tip of the paan spit it out, put the paan in their mouth, chew it for a minute, enjoy the flavor, close their eyes for a second, savor the taste and then be available to speak.

Normally Gujaratis, Marwadis are considered to be very conservative at spending money but for paan they are liberal. They are capable of traveling all the way from Malad to Bandra; spending Rs. 100 on petrol just to eat a paan worth Rs 10. One of the India’s biggest industrialists died and his funeral procession was heading towards Chandan Waadi crematorium. Press reporters and media people were present for the coverage. There was one person who could not control his emotions, was crying very loudly. People thought he must be a very old loyal servant or some relative from his native place. Reporters were curious to know who he was. They inquired and found out that he was industrialist’s regular Paanwaala. The industrialist was fond of paan and in his memory entire family had decided to give up paan for the period of one year. This Paanwaala had lost the business of nearly 25,000/- per month. While there were famous Paanwaalas serving the usual 120/300 and maghai jodi there were some others serving cocaine paan for members of the mafia and the rich spoilt brats. Such cocaine paans were sold for a sum as high as Rs. 4000/Paan. Some of them still continue the business in areas like Pydhonie, Malabar Hill, Bandra and Juhu. The four oldest Paanwaalas in Mumbai are ‘Babu’ from Bhuleshwar Cotton Exchange Gate, ‘Kanu’ from Madhav Bagh Mandir, C.P. tank area, ‘Govind’ from Kalbadevi opposite Dr. Vigas Street and ‘Shani Maharaj’ from Girgaon Chowpaty, who have minted money out of this business. Every day they used to export paans worth thousands to Dubai, Singapore and Middle East by air and still continue to do so.

The old energetic youngsters (senior citizens as we might think) used to go to the pedhis even without carrying walking sticks. Fifty years back at Girgaon chowpatty paan lovers used to get ‘Palangtod Paan ’ (literal meaning - Bed breaking) for just Rs. 20/-. I still do not know which ingredients they use in these paans, what was the effect after having it? Whether palangtod is to break the bed or the waist? Now people talk about Viagra but substance like Viagra was available at our paan shops 60 years ago. In Girgaon area radios were used at paan shops earlier than their entry in households.  Bua’s paan shop at the corner of Anand Bhavan lane was the public place for all youngsters for hearing cricket commentary. At that time Radio reception was not clear and one needed to seriously concentrate on the sound. Today people watch cricket match on big screens in hotels/multiplexes, but hearing commentary from Vijay Merchant on radio at paan shop had its own fun.  During cricket season ‘Kya score hua?’ during Election period ‘Kaun jeeta?’ “Bhai saahab Anand Bhuvan kidhar hai?” Only the paanwaala could provide correct answers to such questions. During festivals like Kojagiri and Holi these paanwaalas would arrange bhaang for you. Till date the Paanwaala outside Mahalaxmi temple is famous for providing the most authentic bhang in Mumbai.

With Development of the city now paan shops are available at every nook and corner. Some are regular cigarette and Paan vendors while some have focused on creating a brand. Different marketing strategies have been implemented by these new age paanwaalas to promote themselves. The ghanta paanwaala at Borivali rings a bell (ghanta literally) every time a paan is delivered to a customer. ‘Muchchad Paanwaala’ is probably the most abused brand names, there’s one at Charni Road, Andheri , Bandra and Borivali. Each Muchchad Paanwaala boasts about his long moustache and how the other muchchads stole his creative idea. The one at Andheri is listed in Limca book of records for making most number of paans in one hour. 

Times have changed, paanachi gaddi was replaced by paan patti and now paan patti has been replaced by a retail outlet selling paans, cigarettes, condoms, mobile recharge vouchers and what not. The one thing that has not changed is the craving that one has to eat a paan after a round of drinks and a nice meal. We might have the sizzling brownies, chocolate mousse to eat after a delicious dinner, but nothing compares to the pleasure of eating a maghai jodi after a delicious meal. On this note I shall take the last sip of my drink and head to the muchchad Paanwaala at Bandra to have a maghai jodi