Paan Gully in Null and Bhendi Bazaar, has not lost any of its old spirit, despite the diminishing sales, reports Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Jaleel Paanwaala

Arre bhang ka rang jama ho chakachak

Phir lo paan chabaay

Arre aisa jhatka lage jiya pe

Punar janam hoi jay

– By lyricist Anjaan for the song Khaike Paan Banaaras waala

Motilal Kasam, Jaleel Paanwala and Jaffar Sonaji Tamboli open shop at around 7 am every day, save Sunday. Around twenty-five others follow suit, selling pan leaves of every possible variety on a half paved lane flanked by dilapidated market structures, dubbed Paan Gully around 150 years ago. Located in the Null and Bhendi Bazaar area, the alley was born when the British constructed markets around the area, with streets being dubbed as per the wares they traded in. But Null Bazaar wasn’t named as such because it sold taps, and Bhendi Bazaar didn’t particularly provide ladyfingers. Despite numerous other paan bazaars today then, Paan Gully has stood true to its name for well over a century.
Tamboli however bemoans the fact that their sales have plummeted: “Ever since gutkha was launched 20 years ago, our sales have gone from Rs 40,000 each to Rs 2000!” he cries. Tamboli used to hit these streets at 4 am in his heyday to meet market demand. Unable to compete with gutkha, thanks to its price and convenience, the value of paan, that has tickled fine taste buds through history, has been eroded by fine tobacco, coffee and wine.
Ironically, R M Dhariwal, chairman of the Manikchand Group and Vice Chairman of the Zafrani Zarda and Paan Masala Manufacturers’ Association, had protested – much like Tamboli – when the Maharashtra government imposed a ban on gutkha: “We feel the cigarette lobby is working against us!” So, it’s a dog eat, dog world. So paan sellers, sans industry or global marketing, are also sans teeth.
While their wares differ, most of the sellers are Maharashtrians whose families have sold paan for generations. Kasam, from Patoda sells Poona Paan at Rs 60 for a thousand leaves: “My supply comes in from
Madras. My daily turnover differs, but it goes up to Rs 1,500.” Jalil, from the same Beed zilla, does better, at up to Rs 5,000 per day, “but only during festivals and weddings!” Tamboli, who has worked here for 50 years, peddles a buffet: “Poona, Banarsi, Kalkatta Meetha, and Deshi!” While Poona lacks the sweet of Kalkatta Meetha, Deshi is for those who particularly want something bitter. Further down are a few supari shops. While shop No 35, M H Sethia sticks to its old offers with “Mangalore and Sevardhan Supari, Saada Tambaacu and Kanpuri Katta”, some shops like No 34 has included items like Mangalore Snuff and Rajni Safed Bidi on its menu to survive.
On the far end of the market, is an old paan seller who refuses an interview. Then he warms up saying, “My son is also a journalist.” His wife worked in the survey department, and his other son works for Balaji Telefilms. Yet, he comes into the gully everyday, “because it’s my khandaani profession. If I leave it, I won’t know what to do at home.” He will have to leave it soon, he says though, because there are plans to convert the dilapidated structure adjoining the gully to be converted into a mall, “whereby we will be cleared off”. Close to him is a seller of the last essential paan ingredient. “Chuna for Rs 24 a kilo,” announces Barsati Lal. The shop Barsati manages provided only chuna earlier – but today draws most of it’s earnings from cigarettes. As if to educate us, he plays the old Khaike Paan Banaras Waala on his music system. The words of a stanza from this straightforward Bollywood blockbuster acquire new meaning:
Arre Ram duhaai, kaise chakkar mein pad gayaa haye,
Kahaan jaan fansaai, main to sooli pe chadh gayaa haye,
Kaisaa seedhaa saadha main kaisaa bholaa bhaalaa,
Jaane kaun ghadi mein pad gayaa padhe likhon se paalaa.
“Meethi churi se hua halaal,”
is where he presses stop.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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