Every late Friday afternoon, in a busy market at the intersection of Bowenpally and Sikh village in Hyderabad, a small group of men gather to begin a rather peculiar ritual. Pouting their red lips they spit a jet of red liquid. They try to say something to each other but they spit again. The ritual continues until a clamorous mob around them drowns their voices.
These men fade into the market’s background and nobody regards their obsession to spit and chew. It may seem strange, but for these compulsive chewers the market is their place of utmost sanctity because a corner shop here sells the infamous paan.
The people of Hyderabad are some of the happiest and nonchalant people I have come across in South India. They love nothing more than to take light (Hyderabad’s colloquial phrase for a mood of conviviality). But what do they do then when things aren’t so chill? They relish in their love for paan.
Paan in South India has long been an after food mouth freshener. In Hyderabad, though, paan is the meal for the daring and non-conforming which comes in different flavors for its unique buyer.
The unconcerned people of Hyderabad often eat saada paan [Urdu: plain paan] which is made of nuts and aromatic spices. People chew it, keep it in their cheek and then about half an hour later, they spit it out.
Cautious people who don’t like spitting; prefer the Meetha paan [Urdu: sweet] which oozes grated coconut, candy and pureed rose petals. The sweetest of all flavors is also one of the most juiciest paan to chew. Among the racially mixed population of Hyderabad, millennial Begums and new age Nizams enjoy spitting, rather than chewing paan. A dash of tobacco and some powdered spices offers the zing that such people in Hyderabad are always on a lookout for.
Other paan aficionados in Hyderabad, like older women, avoid eating paan from a designated seller. While doing groceries or on their way around the city, doddery women sneak in a few leaves from handcart vendors, who sell baskets full of betel leaves.
Elderly women eat paan leaves with their distinct concoctions that have probably been handed down from generations before.
Like many non verbal expressions of affection and happiness, Hyderabad’s paan joins other cultural ambassadors like flowers, sweets and clothing to bond with estranged friends. Probably the reason why many people in Hyderabad embellish weddings with threaded jasmine flowers and sweet paan.
Regardless of where the paan comes from, either from an over affectionate wedding host or from a bored seller in an alleyway, paan intoxicates the people of Hyderabad to help them do what they do best: chew at the city’s problems and spit what they don’t concur.