Food and culture

Meetha or saada, Karachi's love for paan is unmatched

From a tired labourer to a high-flying socialite, there is a paan for everyone.

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.
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.
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.
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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.