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The Red Stain

The Red Stain

November 07, 2012

How can chewing be legal but spitting not?

New York (like London) has a new problem. They have a lot of red stains all over the place and they blame people from the erstwhile British India for it.

There is debate on which country of the Indian subcontinent needs to be blamed for the mess. As of now, the Indians are blaming the Bangladeshis, Bangladeshis are blaming the Pakistanis, Pakistanis are blaming the Nepali and authorities are suspecting Chinese involvement or in other words, business as usual.

From time immemorial, we have been accused of spitting paan on office staircases, subway stations, sidewalks, hospitals, UNO heritage sites – and we probably did all of that! That’s not the point. Spitting is part of our culture. That is how we mark our territory. The British raised the Union Jack. The French did their victory parades. America spreads democracy. We immigrate and spit on your land.

The problem with the paan debate is that it is completely one sided. That’s the problem with the world in general. Celibate Catholic priests taking contraception decisions for women, Wall Street telling third world farmers how to farm, rich people talking about poverty as if they “get it” and now journalists who have never put a Banarasi 300 in their mouth are lecturing us about paan!

I thought enough is enough. I have decided to do a little investigative journalism myself, delve into the deep underworld of paan chewing and break it to the world.

Chapter 1: A Dummy’s guide to paan chewing

My preparation for the operation involved hanging around paan shops and observing how people order paan. A paan (the one you spit) is made by rolling a betel leaf with powdered tobacco, supaari and some other spices. Slaked lime is added to bind these things together.

The paan is entirely customizable according to our personal preferences. There are some conventions to specify your personal paan configuration. If you ask for “a paan”, you are most likely to get a plain supaari paan (without tobacco).

There are a lot of varieties of betel leaf you can choose from. The most popular among them are Calcutta and Banarasi. Calcutta leaf is soft on your tongue and has a stronger minty flavor. Banarasi leaf is for the more hardcore.

You can also choose your tobacco. It comes in different brands which are represented by numbers which range from 120 to 520 depending on its strength (or “kick” as the paan shop guy puts it). You can also specify whether you want supaari or not. In addition to these basic things, you can further ask for additional ingredients like cardamom, saffron, roasted or unroasted coconut powder, cloves and other spices.

The most accepted syntax to specify your configuration is <leaf> <tobacco number> <supaari (Boolean)> <other>. For example Calcutta 300 no supaari laung is how you order a paan with Calcutta leaf, 300 strength tobacco, no supaari with a clove (laung) pinned to it on the fold.

Regulars swear that Paan rolling is an art form in itself.

Chapter 2: Early attempts

Now that I have gained all the cultural knowledge required to order a paan, I walked to a nearby paanwala and asked him for a Calcutta 120. Nothing fancy, just the beginner’s stuff. He quickly rolled it and I put it in my mouth.

My memory of the series of events that followed are a little shady but I remember reflexively spitting it out, coughing for 20 minutes, brushing my teeth twice and having a slight headache for the next 24 hours. Clearly, the first attempt failed.

I am not the kind of a guy who gives up easily on completely useless projects. After all, all I had to do was not spit. How hard could that be? With that mental preparation, I went back the next day and ordered the same paan.

I didn’t reflexively spit it out this time. I didn’t cough either. But I started getting hiccups and with each passing hiccup, irrational fears crept into my mind that I might swallow it. It’s all a mind game. I didn’t realize that a “Do not swallow” rule was as important as the “Do not spit” rule. This attempt lasted less than 30 seconds but I made progress.

Chapter 3: The Paan chewer’s Eternal Dilemma

The third attempt was better. I got hiccups but only small ones. A couple of minutes into it, I was surprised by the amount of saliva the human body could produce. It felt as if some strong chemicals are dissolving my mouth from the inside. I also had a new found respect for Marwari uncles who chew this all day while negotiating business deals without spraying on their clients. Three minutes into the ordeal, the “Do not spit” sign looked like an inviting spittoon made of Gold and ivory.

See this is the root of the problem. You have public toilets for nature calls, wash basins for washing your hands, trashcans for the chocolate wrappers but there is no place to legally spit. There are only boards that say ‘Do not spit’!

Suppose you had a banana skin in your hand. There are a large number of “Do not litter” signs but no trashcan in sight. Now imagine that the banana skin is wriggling in your hand with a life of its own at a bus stop and your bus is almost there. At this point of time, you either have to break the law by littering or go into a crowded bus with a wriggling banana skin in your hand. What would you do?

This is the story behind every paan stain – the paan chewer’s eternal dilemma. Most of the times it is the lacking/missing infrastructure (no dustbin) that leads to unpleasant circumstances (litter) because we’re trying to avoid embarrassing social situations (like getting into a bus with a banana peel in your hand)

Ideally girls ought to respect… in fact, fall in love with the guy who gets into the bus with a banana peel because it clearly shows that he is a sensitive person who cares about cleanliness, society, country and the environment. Maybe if women start choosing their mates based on carbon footprint, the environment might just be saved. Think about it.

Chapter 4: Having said that

I agree that paan stains look hideous. It is a real problem and a particularly tricky one too. Folks in Bombay have tried everything from awareness posters, simple warnings to hefty fines to deal with this. They even put up posters of Hindu Gods on walls to prevent the chewers from spitting on the wall! (It was only mildly successful)

So New York and London have a problem in their hand but they should try out some strategies other than complaining about it. After all, how can chewing be legal but spitting illegal?

: Scientific Research has shown that some compounds present in the Betel leaf can help you fight leukemia. The downside is you might get mouth cancer in the process. 


  • zafar
    19.04.13 11:17 AM
    "The French did their victory parades. America spreads democracy. We immigrate and spit on your land."
  • Anunoy Samanta
    Anunoy Samanta
    11.11.12 05:33 PM
    Hahaaa... well scribbled... I really enjoyed your style of writing... quite a Fevicol i must say :)
  • Jyoti Agarwal
    Jyoti Agarwal
    10.11.12 10:53 AM
    simply too good... I am kindda falling in love with ur writing. Is tht injurious to health too?
    07.11.12 11:12 PM
    @ Jayanth

    This is the most Iconic sentence you have ever written.

    " Ideally girls ought to respect… in fact, fall in love with the guy who gets into the bus with a banana peel because it clearly shows that he is a sensitive person who cares about cleanliness, society, country and the environment. Maybe if women start choosing their mates based on carbon footprint, the environment might just be saved. Think about it. "

    Can we blame women / girls for the destruction of this world, or is this too far strechhhhhhhhed? So what do you think? :) When I suggest things like this to my Mrs. I get elbow in my ribs.


    PS The article is brilliant and chewing paan is a bad habbit. Agree 100% with you on this one.
  • Jayanth Tadinada
    Jayanth Tadinada
    07.11.12 09:44 PM
    @shirish: You can't blame the parents for everything. It's not as if parents of smokers did not tell them it is a bad habit. It's just another way of consuming tobacco. I am sure they are all adult enough to know the consequences of it.

    @Sourav, @G, @cumin coriander cardamom: Thanks :D
  • Cumin Coriander Cardamom
    Cumin Coriander Cardamom
    07.11.12 07:30 PM
    This was hilarious!!
  • sourav roy
    sourav roy
    07.11.12 03:12 PM
    The wriggling banana peel, america spreading democracy, girls choosing partners based on carbon footprint - brilliant!
  • G
    07.11.12 09:12 AM
    humourous, enlightening and such a good read. thoroughly enjoyed.
  • Shirish Patwa
    Shirish Patwa
    07.11.12 08:30 AM
    I fully agree with your view that the grotesque stains of paan on walls,streets,corners are revolting.I think it is a problem with the upbringing .Why do you pick up the habit?All out efforts should be made at home,school,other public places,to inculcate in the minds of younger generation of our society that it is not at all beneficial to chew paan,like taking drugs for example.Manyatimes I hang my head in shame that you are singled out as a person who might be dirtiest.

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