Karachi’s citizens have some distinct traits that make their city what it is.

A few of them are their reverence towards the sea, their ‘life goes on’ attitude in the face of the city’s unpredictable halaat (security conditions) and their undying thirst for chai. Then there is one more characteristic Karachiite obsession that is so omnipresent that it almost fades into the city’s background – their love for paan.

Everywhere you turn in the city, you come across paan khokas (makeshift stalls). Such modest two-and-a-half-by-four feet kiosks hold ingredients to make numerous types of paans that would satisfy anyone – from a tired labourer to a high-flying socialite.

A paan for every occasion

In the post-lunch hours on a weekday, the usual hustle and bustle associated with Burns Road has temporarily died down. Eateries are relatively empty and vendors are preparing for rush hour.

Not Muhammad Umar though, whose paan business is booming round the clock. Customers surround his small kiosk. Some purchase loose cigarettes and light them with a lighter tied to the stall’s window. Others order different types of paans.

Umar prepares them with the speed and precision of a pro. It is a treat to watch him in his element. He picks out different ingredients swiftly putting just the right amount of each onto betel leafs.

He has been in the business for a long time. He learned the craft from his father, who, too, had a paan stall.

Muhammad Umar’s Burns Road khoka is in high demand.

Umar’s red lips indicate that he does more than just sell paan.

He seems to be a man of few words at first. This illusion, however, is broken when he spits out a mouthful of paan juice and starts talking.

“I know paans like no other,” he boasts, “I have been doing this for so long, I can tell what kind someone wants just by looking at them.”

A cigarette brand has provided Umar’s kiosk. The white and gold stall is replete with the company’s branding. He thus does not have to worry about rent, unlike other shopkeepers. Perhaps this is why his paans are cheaper than the competitor’s. Or maybe it is the close proximately to Paan Mandi in Jodia Bazaar – the market where most paan salesmen buy their ingredients.

Meetha (sweet) paan costs Rs10 at Umar’s stall. He sells other paans at seven rupees a pop.

In contrast at Moosa Pan Shop on PIDC, the offerings are much pricier, and if shopkeeper Abdul Qadir Malbari is to be believed, far superior.

Malbari, who has been doing this for 20 years, says that at roadside kiosks the paan is made in Pakistani leaf, which is bitter.

The priciest, Meetha paan at his shop, however, is made in a full ‘Sanchi’ leave from Bangladesh. This paan costs 120 rupees. Another high-quality leaf is ‘Silon’ from Sri Lanka. “These leaves are sweeter,” says Malbari. “It’s all about the leaf and the khushboo (aroma).”

A young man and his sister come to the store and order 20 paans. “Ensure that they are wrapped in golden paper,” the man stresses. He is buying the delicacy for his sister’s future in-laws.

Be it a celebration or a trying day at work, there is a paan for every occasion.

Another man comes to Moosa Pan shop, quickly buys one with tobacco and races back to work.

When asked what kinds of customers buy tobacco-filled paans, the shopkeeper says those people are the more “professional paan eaters” – ones who need the narcotic kick to get through the day.

The paan aficionados

One such regular is standing at a paan stall in Sindhi Muslim Society. The man, Sultan Hussain, patiently waits for his order to be prepared. He lives in Gulshan-i-Iqbal but makes a trip to this particular khokha almost every day. This is where the best tobacco paans are available, he says.

“The magic is in the katha [catechu mixed with water to make a paste],” Hussain says.

There are many variations of tobacco paans too, he explains. “There is Patti Tambaku, Mumtaz Tezpatti, Muradabadi, 120 Number, Indian Patti, Shahzadi Patti, Azizi Patti,” he names a few. Instead of one of the more exotic sounding paans with Mughal-era names, however, Hussain opts for the Mix Tambaku paan.

Sultan Hussain at Ghulam Yasin’s paan stall on Sindhi Muslim Road.

He eats 20 paans a day. The middle-aged man has been a paan-eater since the age of 20.

“The first time I ate a paan with a friend, it was a Saunf Khushboo. My friend made fun of me for eating such a zanana (feminine) paan.” He thus switched to the supposedly more mardana (manly) tobacco paans.

Hussain thinks he can easily beat this habit anytime he wants. “You know I fast the whole of Ramazan. For that month, I go through the entire day without a single paan. From Iftaar to Sehri, I manage to eat about 10, and that is sufficient for me,” he says with unmistakable pride.

Fading traditions

Navigating through a traffic jam-packed Jodia Bazaar is not easy but Paan Mandi is curiously quiet.

Some vendors with baskets full of leafs are sitting on the sidewalk of a small alley.

“Business has been really bad for the past three months,” laments a vendor Umaruddin. “There was a time when you wouldn’t be able to walk here on a weekend due to the rush, and look at it now.”

His earnings are unpredictable and depend on how many customers come to the bazaar on a certain day. In general the ‘Sanchi’ leaves are sold for 100 rupees per kilogramme, while 50 grams of ‘Silon’ are sold between the rates of 60 rupees and 80 rupees.

There was a time when imported leaves would sell for 300 rupees to 500 rupees per kilogramme, Umaruddin shares, but those days feel like a distant memory now.

A vendor at Karachi’s Paan Mandi.

Venturing into an explanation, Munawar, a paan ‘cabin’ owner for the past 20 years, says that in certain areas demand for paan has taken a hit with the rise in gutka culture.

Munawar’s khokha is in Dhobi Ghatt. “I sell paans for as low as five rupees,” he says. Another shopkeeper playfully interjects: “What you sell isn’t even paan. It is just the leaf with a few pieces of chhaliya [diced areca nut], of course that will cost five rupees.” Even at this price, most are no longer interested in what he is selling. “Now everyone asks for gutka from India,” Munawar adds.

There may be more to the story: Another storeowner, Salman, shares that while readymade paans continue to sell in Karachi, the tradition of homemade paans is dying. “A good majority of our customers buying betel leaves and other ingredients are either older in age, or are making the purchase for their parents or grandparents,” he adds.

But with time, this generation of homemade paan eaters is fading, and so is the culture.

Dadi’s paan-daan

People visiting Javairiya Abbas’s house may think the beautiful golden paan-daan in her house is a decoration piece, but it is more than mere ornamentation for the young woman.

It belonged to her grandmother, Naeema Khatoon.

“I don’t eat a lot of paan myself, but I was taught how to make one by Dadi,” she tells Dawn. “It had to be ensured that the chalia is dried in sunlight. The katha had to be bought from a specific shop in Delhi Colony. The leaf had to be ‘Saatchi’. She would instruct, ‘don’t use too much chunna, and ensure there is plenty of katha – that is what gives the paan the taste’.”

Naeema Khatoon’s paans were famous even in extended family and friends; visitors would always request her to prepare paan for them.

“She would get irritated also, thinking that her stash may run low later. But she loved seeing everyone enjoying the paans she prepared.”

Abbas lost her Dadi last November. She now considers the paan-daan a family heirloom.

Paan eating is not the same at the Abbas household now. “My father still eats paan sometimes, but he just buys one from Boat Basin if need be.”

Photos by Fahad Naveed.

This article first appeared on Dawn.