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Updated: June 22, 2014 16:17 IST

A sweet leafy craving

SOORAJ RAJMOHAN
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SPIT THE HABIT: Kerala’s paan chewing culture is mainly limited to murukkan, usually enjoyed by family elders. Photo: K.K. Mustafah
The Hindu SPIT THE HABIT: Kerala’s paan chewing culture is mainly limited to murukkan, usually enjoyed by family elders. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

The number of paan shops in the city have increased and its clientele too, despite health warnings

The ubiquitous red stains that cover pavements, window railings, walls and even the floors of large public spaces are not an unusual sight in the country. The bright red juice created by the areca nut and betel leaf combination or paan has become a part of our social culture and is commonly enjoyed.

On the flipside it is often and widely being used to pedal banned substances within its addictive leaves. Despite health warnings, moderation measures and crackdowns too, the paan shop continues to flourish. The city has registered a growth in their numbers and the consumption of paan seems to be far from waning.

Their clientele ranges from labourers, catching up on the latest gossip, to young men zipping up on motorcycles and picking up the necessary ingredients.

“I mainly use the Banarasi leaf, which offers a stronger flavour than what is usually found in this region, for milder flavour you must look elsewhere,” says Sukhdev, a paan seller from Uttar Pradesh. Gaurav and Kiran, his two young clients from West Bengal, who have been working in the city as gardeners, nod in agreement. “I have been working in the city for seven years, and can even speak Malayalam,” says Gaurav proudly, the telltale dark stains on his teeth a testament to the habit, before lauding Sukhdev’s talent for making sweet paan.

Both he and Kiran seem nonchalant about their habit, aware of the legal stand against certain products, but viewing it just as a source of mild pleasure. “I have been indulging in paan-chewing for many years, and have tried many different varieties. Now the law has cracked down on many packet-based variants, but I believe it is still available in some places,” says Kiran. This enforcement seems mostly in effect, with Sukhdev’s shop showing no outward signs of such distribution. Sukhdev says his cosy little stall has been doing brisk business since he set it up around four years ago.

While the habit usually starts at a young age, Kerala is relatively better off in this case, says Dr. S. Sachidananda Kamath, consultant paediatrician at Welcare Hospital in Vytilla. “The major problem with such addictions is that they start young, and habits developed at a young age are the hardest to cure. That said, Kerala is doing better than the northern states, where paan is much more easily accessible and mixed with many other unsavoury ingredients to increase its potency.”

However, he cautions that the lower penetration does not mean all is rosy. “Despite efforts by the government and NGOs there are occasional instances of paan masala packets sold near schools. While the desired effect is a pleasurable kick, most people do not realise the dangers of side effects such as lowered inhibition, anti-social activity and oral cancers,” he says.

According to T.K. Ashraf, chairman, Health Standing Committee, Cochin Corporation, curbing the ill effects of these substances must be taken up by society as a whole. “The government does what it can to control distribution of harmful substances, such as a blanket ban on branded paan masala, and restrictions on tobacco products near schools. But regular paan chewing is part of our culture that it is not easy to impose restrictions upon it, so we make it a point to create awareness, particularly among schoolchildren. To this end we bring out material and try to educate vulnerable sections of society. It must be a collective effort.”

Kerala’s paan chewing culture is still mostly limited to the late afternoon murukkaan, usually enjoyed by the elders of the family, while the increasing stains in public spaces are attributed by shopkeepers to the migrant population in the city.

The ban on paan masala brands is also taken with some seriousness, with one shopkeeper throwing up his hands and backing away as if confronted by the devil when asked about these products. Unsavoury yet deeply integrated the combination of betel and areca and its relationship with those who use it is a strange one. And while known dangers are now being curbed with moderate success, the humble paan, for better or worse, soldiers on.

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