Lingering taste of betel leaf

I don’t eat paan because I don’t like its bitter-sweet taste, the liquid mixing with the saliva and the entire process of putting the folded leaf in my mouth, chewing it and spitting out the coloured juice. 

My aversion to betel leaf goes back to my school days in Rohtak when I was in Class 3 or 4. Every day, I commuted to school on a rickshaw along with four or five other children. In the afternoons, during our ride back home, it was almost a routine for the rickshaw guy to stop in front of a paan shop to pick up a beeda. He would be back quickly but not before the children had brought the roof down with their cries of ‘Bhaiya jaldi aayo’ (come soon). 

For the rest of the ride, while his feet worked on the pedal, his mouth talked nineteen to dozen, and now and then one of his hands would leave the handle and reach the corner of his mouth to wipe the coloured droplets of beeda. Then he would slow down to spit on the road. We cribbed about this compulsory halt. 

One day, he decided to treat us children with the sweet paan. Quickly, the paans were prepared for all. I was reluctant at first but when prodded by other children, I kept the folded betel leaf on my tongue and closed my mouth tightly. The paan was anything but sweet. I was instructed to chew it slowly, letting the juices mix with my saliva. I followed the instructions with my eyes closed shut. I felt like puking. 

We started the journey back home. I kept the paan in my mouth for the fear of its juices falling out from my mouth and soiling my uniform. I wanted to spit it out but didn’t for the fear of being mocked. The other children, including my younger sister, were enjoying the paan like seasoned paan chewers. No sooner did the rickshaw stop in front of my house, I bolted inside and spat out that thing into the trash bin, promising never to taste the poison again.

Decades have passed but my aversion towards betel leaf continues. I am also wiser now not to give in to persuasion, force or motivation. I have developed ample self-control to not be tempted to try a new and flavoured variety of paan. Whatever it is, a paan is a paan.

A few years ago, at a wedding in Bengaluru, I gave in. It was not the paan but the ceremonies around serving the paan which made me go to the paanwala thrice to demand a sweet paan. Sitting on a heavily decorated platform, the turbaned man would prepare the paan, ring the bell as in a temple, swing his arms, encircle the beeda thrice around your face before offering it to you while loud Bollywood music played in the background. It was pure fun! 

Of course, I didn’t eat the paans. I gave them to my better half who has now taken a vow to never venture into a lane where a paan shop is located.

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Lingering taste of betel leaf

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