March 28, 2007

Paan Melodies

HT first ran this account of my weekend trip, meandering on Mumbai streets.

Yeh jo paan khayenge na aap ab, yeh ghul jayaga,” he said as he handed us two meetha paans, shaking his head when I asked him for a piece of paper in which to wrap the paan that I did not intend to eat just then.

Seeing him shake his head I decided otherwise. I was not about to treat the meetha paan in a manner that the connoisseur did not seem fit. After ‘forty years and three months’ of running a paan shop in Fort, I doubted if there was anything that Mishraji did not know about paans. A paan rested in a corner of his mouth as he turned to me and spoke in the same manner in which he made us the two paans, soft, and deliberate, taking his time, and in tune with the deserted Sunday afternoon in Fort. “Do not chew it. Just hold it in your mouth,” he said. I stopped chewing it and pushed the paan into the corner of the mouth where it bulged slightly on the outside.

We had happened upon Mishraji’s paan shop on the sidewalk opposite HMV (His Master’s Voice) in the Cowasji Patel Street as we exited Mahesh Lunch Home after lunch, where a waiter found it amusing to alarm a kid with a live crab that he paraded until pretty much everyone saw it claw the air in vain. The street was deserted as we stepped out and took to the Sun.

Two varieties of paan were stacked neatly on a wooden rest covered in red cloth that was wet from water that Mishraji sprinkled from time to time to keep them fresh. Mishraji had picked up the smaller of the two varieties, explaining as he went about opening tins of ingredients that went into the making of the meetha paan. “The smaller paan leaf is called the Magadi patta. It is sourced from Magajpur, near Gaya in Bihar. The bigger one, Banarsi paan, is from Orissa. Dekhte chalo kya kya dalenge paan mein,” he said as he opened a colourful tin of Snowpeas Paan Rasna – Paan flavouring material made of a mixture of Amla – Bel, the latter a creeper. Amla powder is mixed with Bel Pulp powder and added with Saccharine – Sodium and natural flavouring substances. It was free of Betelnut, Tobacco, Catechu, and Lime. Then he added grated dry coconut that was coloured light yellow, pink, and green before dipping a miniature brass pestle into a brass jar of gulkand that he held up for me to smell. “Smell the gulkand,” he said turning to me. “Since the time I found a cockroach in gulkand that I bought from the market twenty years ago, I began preparing it at home along with Katthah, and Chuna (Lime). I make the Katthah from Babul that’s also used in cleaning teeth. I get the Babul from Kanpur.”

Then he pointed out the HMV studios in the building opposite, and said, “Hridaynath Mangeshkar, Lata Mangeshkar, Ashaji, and Mohammed Rafiji used to walk down here after their recordings in the first floor studios up there.” Then pointing across the street, Mishraji said, “Woh samne wala shutter dekh rahe ho na . . . Das Prakash Hotel tha. It used to be a good hotel, no longer exists now. We used to get Masala Dosa from there, made in desi ghee. Those Dosas used to be large. Mukeshji used to like them very much and used to order for them when he came to the studios to record his songs.”

I look at the old radio on the shelf behind him and imagine it playing the immortal hits from the 1960s and 1970s soon after being recorded across the street.

“Narulaji used to be the manager then. Amitabh Bacchan used to visit the HMV studios regularly. He is very good natured. I used to go to the studios and have chai-coffee with them; Lataji, Ushaji, Hridaynathji, S D Burman.” Time rolls back as Mishraji recollects moments long gone, now kept alive by their significance. He adds, “The HMV Studios was like home to them. Sometimes they would call out to me from the First Floor asking me to walk across the street to the Studios upstairs before the traffic lights turned green: ‘Uncle ajao ji, green light ho jayegi, ajao, jaldi aao.’” His voice softens at the memory, quivering ever so slightly as his eyes moisten.

We stand in silence as Mishraji gathers himself, each lost in their thoughts. Shadows on the sidewalk shift as a car drives past. I look up at the building across the street, at the fading HMV logo and imagine S D Burman hurrying Mishraji into crossing the street before the traffic light turned green.

Then it is time to leave. We bid the man from Benares bye, and turn left into Pitha Street while remembered images from newspapers and magazines over the years turn into a slideshow in my mind.