Desi Girl: the mystery of the red paan marks revealed

If you ever have friends visiting India or Pakistan, get them to bring you back paan.

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If you’ve ever been in the backstreets of the seedier parts of any of the Emirates, you will have been confronted by the mysterious knee-high red marks on walls in alleys and stairwells. What looks like the aftermath of a midget massacre is in fact the evidence of an extremely popular – and in the UAE, highly illegal – desi delight: paan.

Various potent-smelling – and tasting – unguents are slathered onto a palm-sized heart-shaped leaf from the betel nut tree, topped with crushed betel (areca) nut, rolled into a tiny triangular pouch and consumed with much relish, much like one would a cigarette: after a meal, or in a social setting.

This is a paan, which, after chewing and much mastication, may be swallowed or spat out.

Though the exact origins are uncertain, archaeological evidence places the origin of paan’s most popular incarnation – a combination of betel leaves, nuts, “choona” (slaked lime paste) and “katha” (acacia extract) – in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia as far back as 4,000 years.

The addition of cured tobacco to the mix is a fairly recent innovation, though.

The paan was a permanent fixture of my childhood summers in Pakistan. I can’t recall ever having seen my paternal grandmother without a paan pressed behind her cheek, or without her paandan at her side.

A little silver box on four tiny legs, the paandan held all of the ingredients for her paan. The top folded back to reveal a tray with four compartments, one each for betel nuts, choona, katha and tobacco. Lifting the tray would reveal the bottom compartment, containing a stash of fresh, shiny green betel leaves and the nutcracker.

The ritual would start with a concentrated cracking of the whole betel nuts into appropriate-sized pieces. Then my grandma would take a betel leaf in her hand and, using a small metal wand dipped in each component in turn, she would layer choona and katha onto the leaf, sprinkle on some tobacco and some crushed betel nut, before folding the paan into a triangle and popping the whole thing in her mouth.

If you go out looking for a taste of this piece of desi culture here in the UAE, you will be sorely disappointed. The sale of paan is banned in the UAE for obvious reasons – it would seem that consumption of the paan leads to abandonment of all civic sense.

The inevitable mouthful of deep-red juice that one ends up with after chewing on a paan for several minutes is supposed to be spat out, not swallowed. Traditionally, there would be an ugaldaan (spittoon) at hand.

In the absence of an ugaldaan, however, paan chewers treat their mouthful of red as a creative medium. In paan-consuming cities, you will be hard-pressed to find a wall, pavement or road not squirted with red.

In fact, with all the desis in the UAE, you can find quite a lot of evidence of this here, too. And hence, the blanket ban on the sale of the tiny culprits.

That doesn’t stop diehard fans from making sure they get some whatever way they can. While the sale of paan is prohibited, bringing it into the country in small quantities is not. So, whenever we have friends visiting from Pakistan or India, the list of things we ask them to bring includes paan.

The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi living in Dubai