By Eisha Sarkar
Posted on India Guide on Feb 28, 2011
"No, Mehmud Begada, the Sultan of Gujarat, died in 1511. I am very good with dates," says Ayub Khan Pathan looking up from the betel leaves lined up on the makeshift steel table. "I studied history at the M S University. If you want to know anything about Vadodara, you ask me," the trivia-enthusiast insists, dropping chopped supari (areca nuts) onto a leaf. His customers watch in awe as he rolls up each paan and packs them together in a giant betel leaf with a cord.
The tradition of chewing paan, a betel leaf filled with areca nut, lime paste and spices, dates back thousands of years in South Asia. Paan, believed to have antiseptic and medicinal properties, is used as a mouth freshener and a digestive. It plays an important role in social customs as an offering to guests and is incorporated in auspicious occasions such as wedding ceremonies. There are numerous assortments of paan, including some stuffed with tobacco and others packed with combinations of fennel, anise, sesame seeds, cardamom, clove, and coconut. In sweet paan the areca nut is replaced with a combination of sugar, candied fruit, gulkand (a sweet preserve of rose petals) and candy-coated fennel seeds.
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While Vadodara has a paan shop at every corner, few can miss Pathan's 'Autowala Paan' at Old Padra Road. Pathan, who ferries schoolchildren in his autorickshaw during the day, turns his vehicle into a paan shop from 6 pm till 11 pm, and a little longer during Navratri and Diwali festivals. It takes him about an hour to neatly arrange the boxes of paan masala, gulkand, chuna (lime paste), areca nuts, cigarettes, tobacco powder, chewing gum and chocolates on a steel tray placed over the driver's seat. "Those who have paan here don't want to go elsewhere," Pathan says of his loyal following.
As he trims off fresh betel leaves with a pair of bronze tailoring scissors, Pathan explains that he used to have a small stall outside Bawarchi restaurant. "It was beautiful but in the monsoon it would become quite messy." Then one rainy day in 1999, Pathan set up a table inside the rickshaw and lined it up with containers of his essential ingredients and spices. "In spite of the rain, customers came for my paan. I continued through the monsoon and people started calling me, 'Autowala paanwala'." The name stuck and newspapers even carried his pictures. Since then, Pathan has had no reason to look for another stall.
As customers gather around for sweet Kalkatti and Banarasi paans, Pathan explains that he is not an ordinary paanwala. "I come from a noble family. My ancestors were Nawabs (provincial governors) in the old Baroda state," he says with pride as his son, who studies in the sixth grade, comes to him with an order of two 'regular supari' paans. Pathan's grandfather served as a councilor during the reign of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III's. He was granted jagirs, or territory off which the family earned tax-revenue. The government confiscated Pathan's ancestral lands when land-titles were abolished post-Independence. A tinge of regret fills his tone, "The next generation couldn't come to terms with their new position in society and squandered away their inheritance. My father, left with little choice, was the first in the family to start a business."
Pathan then explains why his father chose paan as the family business. "My father is a shair (Urdu poet) and loves going to mushairas (poetic symposiums). He attended one in Lucknow and fell in love with the paan he had tasted there. So when he returned, he really wanted to open a paan shop in our neighborhood in Mughalwada in the old city of Vadodara," he shares. Pathan then starts reciting a composition by the renowned Urdu poet, Faiz, as he slaps some slaked lime onto a betel leaf. His audience cheers him on, "Wah! Wah!"
The Autowala paanwala recommends attending a mushaira in Mughalwada, where poets recite their own compositions in Urdu, Hindi and Gujarati. "Kya mehfil jamti hai!" he exclaims, expressing that it is always a memorable gathering. The mushairas are organized regularly and announced in the local Gujarati dailies. Poets recite their own compositions in Urdu, Hindi and Gujarati.
From driving an autorickshaw and reciting poetry to documenting the history of Mughalwada, working as a tour-guide and writing a guide book on Goa in Hindi, 50-year-old Pathan is a busy man. But what remains closest to his heart is the paan shop. "Paan mein paisa nahin hai par paan ke bina koi rah nahin sakta." (There is no money to be made in paan, but what is life without it.)
(Pics credit: India Guide and Joy Fernandes)