Friday, 22 May 2015

The Lives and Loves of Moheshkhali's Betel Vines

Beyond the paddy, a paan barouj. Moheshkhali's paan is famous for its sweet flavour.

“Man's dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying he might say: all my life, all my strength was given to the finest cause in all the world—the fight for the Liberation of Mankind.

Paddy and paan on the Shaplapur Road.
Life: one could spend time contemplating the above clunky quote of early twentieth century Soviet socialist realist writer Nikolai Alexeevich Ostrovsky, doubtless finding in it some worthwhile intent. Alternatively, one could let go and chew on a Moheshkhali betel leaf, a Moheshkhali paan.

Hear the harmonium start to turn its churning phrase? Is that the dotara that’s plucking out the first beats of rhythm? Don’t worry: the folk song voice of the late Shefali Ghosh isn’t far off; on the subject of Moheshkhali’s paan she’s got something to say…

But before we hand over to Shefali’s recording, let’s meet Jamal Hossein, 25, the betel seller at the front of his family’s tea shop in Gorakghata. Watch him set to work! Clearly he could go elaborate on us: cardamom, anise, cloves, shredded coconut, chewing tobacco, a mukhwa digestive mouth-freshening mix and sugar coated fennel seeds; but as well he keeps it simple.

Tending paddy below, paan barouj above.
A few shreds of areca nut, fresh or dried, and a dollop of builder’s lime, chun, on the side. Be sure the areca in either form is from Teknaf, that the leaf is Moheshkhali’s own… though with Jamal the expert for five taka there’s nothing to worry about, so don’t give it a second’s thought.

Watch how with adept fingers he folds the paan khili into its usual conical package shape; watch how… Hey presto! It’s ready…

A tea shop in Gorakghata

But wait… Abu Taher’s beaten us to it. At the first tea shop bench in from the street he’s already chewing. The 40-year-old truck driver from Chittagong carts cement to Moheshkhali, six-hours each way, up and down every day. When work is done, he knows to savour an island paan before climbing back into his rig.

A map of Moheshkhali Island.
“You can’t get paan like this elsewhere,” he says, “The soil is honey; Moheshkhali’s paan is sweet.”

I’m not sure Taher’s face as it chews is beautiful in any usual sense though his wife probably likes it. Yet for Moheshkhali his face is new, even if it’s a new face that re-arrives daily. Jodi shondor akkhan mukh paitam, Jodi notun akkhan mukh paitam… Shefali’s begun: “If I come across a beautiful face; if I come across a new face…”

Moheshkailla paaner khili tare bhanai khaoaitam! “I’ll make for him a Moheshkhali paan-khili, for him to chew,” sings the queen of Chittagonian folk music, who started her music career at age seven and was famed for the dramatic on-stage presentation of her songs.

Yet if for Shefali our island paan means love, let’s not forget 28-year-old Rokshana Aktar. She’s not with us at the tea shop right now. She’s at home in Choto Moheshkhali Union, and if not sewing with the eldest of her three daughters then she might be mixing fertilizer or organising accounts, her contribution to the family’s paan garden business, the tasks she can complete without leaving the house.

Paan / Betel leaf, ready for sale.
For Aktar, Moheshkhali paan is less about love and more about livelihood. Her family have taken up the task of the barui, the paan cultivator. “Harvest begins after one month,” she knows; after two it’s even better.

First the stick and straw barouj, the paan’s shade house is constructed, often in tight valleys or on slopes of Moheshkhali’s otherwise-difficult-to-farm hills. Twenty days after cuttings are planted fertilizer is applied, cow dung, potassium, magnesium… Two weeks later stakes are affixed to hold the burgeoning vines.

“Insects are the biggest risk,” Aktar says, “If they attack the whole plant dies.”

Betel vines growing in a barouj.

Ek dinelai rakhi tare, Housher pirit shikhaitam… sings Shefali. “I will keep him for a day. I will teach him sweet love.” And for Shefali’s one day of Moheshkhali paan fostered love, Aktar’s husband and one of her two sons attend to the barouj daily. They only hire outside help at peak times.

Rokshana Aktar.
As vines lengthen they are pulled down with the low stem portions curled and covered in soil to promote further growth. Leaves are harvested from the top of the vine and, insects aside, a betel vine produces for several years.

“Poush to Falgun are the most profitable months,” says Aktar the accountant, referring to the December – March days of winter to early spring. During this period the supply of betel leaf is less and prices rise. During the monsoon months the opposite applies. Yet in all twelve months there is paan to be harvested.

Noya mukher noya kotha, Sunite shondor…
Mazemaze paan cibaito, Hashiro bhitor.

“A new face’s new words sound beautiful,
Sometimes he will chew paan while laughing inside.”

“We used to grow tomatoes, brinjal and chilli on rented land,” says Aktar, “My husband did carpentry or any odd job.” But for the last three years it’s paan’s words that have them laughing. “The income is good,” she says, “To invest 1 lakh taka is to get 2 lakhs in sales.”

Paddy and paan, leading up a valley.
As for its taste, Aktar says, “If you try it, you’ll like it. Other betel is tart.”

Four leaves make one gonta and 80 gontas make one birra; and one birra sells for between 150 – 300 taka depending on quality: the sums one needs to know in the betel game. Every Tuesday and Friday the largest betel market on the island is held at Boro Moheshkhali’s Notun Bazar. Aktar’s husband goes fortnightly, returning with about 20,000 taka.

Paan for sale in Notun Bazar, Big Moheshkhali.

And while he’s at the market he might meet Mohammed Zakaria, 35, just as easily as we’ve met him on the second bench from the street, back in Jamal’s tea shop. He’s chewing paan while Shefali takes rest for a short instrumental break.

It's a busy scene at Notun Bazar paan market on Tues, Fri.
Zakaria has a barouj of his own. He’s a Notun Bazar regular. “My garden is the size of this shop,” he explains.

But he doesn’t only go to Notun Bazar to sell; he also speculates. “I feel the weight,” he says of how he chooses betel to buy that he thinks he can resell minutes later at a higher rate. “One birra can weigh as much as a kilogram, though it’s usually only 300 to 400 grams.”

Shefali’s accompanying him now… Premer mala dono hate, Tare golai poraitam… “With two hands I place love’s lei onto his neck.” It’s probably how Zakaria feels when he’s gambled well and re-sold paan at a healthy profit.

Negotiations underway at Notun Bazar.
“Moheshkhali paan tastes good because of the soils,” the connoisseur says.

Meanwhile at the third bench in from the street is 37-year-old Sultan Mohammed Khan. A more local than this local would be hard to find. His family has been in Moheshkhali for generations; an ancestor was chairman of half the island in the eighteenth century, according to Khan, when Hiram Cox was the running governor.

His grandfather once exported salt by sampan to Kolkata. His father established shrimp farms while Khan is a landholder who leases out family land on a fifty-fifty share basis to both salt producers and shrimp farmers. And Khan enjoys his paan. “Moheshkhali’s paan has heavy taste!”

Rosher kotha, Rosher pirit, Jodi na jane… Duyan ekhan kotam tare, Premer karoner, Shefali continues.

Areca nut / Shupari. The best comes from Teknaf.
“Romantic talk, romantic love, if he doesn’t know… A little sweet talk to him, for the sake of love…” Ah, the little tea shop talk of Moheshkhali’s paan might not be romantic, but it’s likewise sweet!

Khan’s lifestyle allows him to travel. He’s been to all but 17 districts of Bangladesh, he claims, and in 1994 ventured as far as a Kolkata book fair in search of a tome by one of his favourite authors: Nikolai Ostrovsky. Yes, he’s a landlord who appreciates a staunchly communist writer; apparently he can contemplate Ostrovsky’s heavy phrases and chew heavy-tasty paan at the same time.

Paan growing at the foot of Adinath Hill in Little Moheshkhali.

Paan is one of the main crops on Moheshkhali.
“Nutrition and taste are different things,” Khan opines, “The paan here is both more nutritious and tastier than in other districts, where paan tastes bitter.” A mention of Bhola’s betel leaf provokes him to screw his face with displeasure. No words are needed.

As for Indian betel he’s still less impressed. “It looks nice,” he recalls, “and it’s grown with more scientific methods; but the taste isn’t so good.”

Noronarir housher pirit, Ki moza tare bujaitam… she sings. “Sweet human love, how nice it is he will know.”

Let the final spoken words be from Jamal the betel seller. He’s explaining that not all Moheshkhali paan is the same. “The paan from older, hillside gardens is the best,” he says, “Paan from newer gardens is a little less tasty and softer.” And it can’t be certain even Shefali knew that.

Paan, sold by the birra.

It really does taste sweeter. I tried one before I'd even heard of Moheshkhali paan and I thought "Wow! That was a tasty paan."

Moheshkhali paan. Immortalised in folk song.
Moheshkailla paaner khili tare bhanai khaoaitam! “I’ll make for him a Moheshkhali paan-khili, for him to chew!” Shefali’s fading now, her song’s almost done. But of course the singer who died before her time, of a brain haemorrhage in 2006, always lives on in her music.

So whether it’s for livelihood or speculation, as a truck stop treat or while considering the wisdom of a Soviet writer, whether its hillside or new garden variety, while chewing Moheshkhali’s paan and imbibing its distinctively sweet, easy recognisable flavour, you might just find thrown into the bargain a hint of Shefali’s immortal tones, of love’s serenade.

Had he known of it, even Ostrovsky could not have objected to that. 

A paan barouj in Moheshkhali will often be located in a valley or on a hillside.

An abridged version is published in The Daily Star, here: Lovers of Moheshkhali Betel

An aside: after visiting the paan market one hot morning in Big Moheshkhali, it was time for breakfast. I found a local hotel and before long two local paan traders joined me at the table. Of course we got to talking and they said they'd just sold - their pockets were full of cash. Partly from feeling flush and partly from general hospitality, when I finished (before them) they insisted on paying for my breakfast too. Knowing there was no way to get around that I agreed and walked to the front counter where, talking to the manager, I secretly paid theirs instead! The manager was so impressed he gave a discount. Meanwhile those two just understood what I'd done as I left... too late to stop me! 

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