Just a few metres into the busy, narrow Kothuval street, inside Chalai market, we meet Shamsuddin, a betel leaf (vettila) seller. The vetta or vettila leaves, tied in bundles, are neatly stacked along with baskets full of arecanuts in this one-room shop. With the sun beating down without a respite, the leaves are all withered and water is occasionally sprinkled to keep them fresh. The heat has taken its toll on the arecanuts as well.
“There are some four or five betel leaf vendors in this street who do business from their shops. But there are many who sell them on the sides of the street,” says Shamsuddin, who has been in this business for half a decade now. The shop belongs to Viswanathan who sells tobacco and related products at the same shop. He inherited it from his grandfather. The shop was opened some 90 years ago.
Shamsuddin starts work by six in the morning and closes shop by 9 p.m. The leaves come from Nedumangad, Kilimanoor, Pandalam, Parakkode, Pathanapuram…. early in the morning.
“The leaves are taken in bulk by many shops in and around the city. It is from the coastal areas that we get the maximum buyers. Betel leaf chewing is still a habit for the fishermen community,” he says.
However, demand has come down these days. Perhaps the realisation that chewing of betel could be carcinogenic could have reduced sales. “There was a time when I used to sell 3,000 to 4,000 bundles of leaves. Now, it is between 300 and 400!” he says.
Nevertheless, the prices have gone up. “There was a time when a bundle of 100 leaves cost one ana, now it costs Rs. 25 and up. Sometimes, when there is a shortage of leaves, we sell it for Rs. 100 per bundle.”
Besides the ‘naadan’ variety, he also stocks the ‘Thulasikkodi’ variety. “It is a bit spicy and is basically used in temples and for religious purposes,” says Shamsuddin. He stays at Paruthikkuzhy with his wife and three sons.
The arecanuts come from Kozhikode and Mangalapuram. “Though we have local varieties such as those from Vithura and Peringamala, they are not very good,” he adds.
So, does he chew betel leaves? “No. I am doing this business because I need to make a living,” he says.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is)