How My Husband Remembers His Father Through His Paan Addiction

“My dada (grandfather) named me,” exclaimed my husband’s niece, after asking me if I knew what her name meant. When I nodded an uninterested ‘no’ in reply, she said, “A woman of wit.”

It’s true. This little girl is wise beyond her years. She is too cheerful and active to be in the company of a writer. Later that night, I told my husband about this little exchange we had and he giggled. He shared a little anecdote with me about his father’s predilection for naming all the children in his family.

It has been more than a year since they lost him to COVID-19. His three sons bring him up in conversation every once or twice an hour, as if he is still here. Their desperate attempts to keep their father alive makes him more dead each time they narrate stories about him. I sensed quite early that he meant a great deal to them. After all, the weight of a father is known only when it is lifted. 

I wonder if I am exploiting my husband’s memories of him by penning them down or am I immortalising them, keeping them safe for him to revisit when we are old and on the brink of losing our memories? I hope it’s the latter. It’ll help me sleep better at night.

The way he speaks of him with so much pride and joy makes me feel that I missed out on a remarkable human being. My husband and I got married a year after his passing. He is an ordinary man. By ordinary, I mean he is not a writer. His wounds are still fresh. He doesn’t deal with pain as writers do. He just forgets about it, I guess. Maybe grief looks different to non-writers.

Anyway, he is so unartistic and mundane and “human” that his perception of life bewilders me. I ask him the most basic questions about art, philosophy and about the tenet of faith, love and death and he looks disconcerted. He says he hasn’t met people of my kind before. Writers. 

His father was a paan enthusiast. Betel leaves. It was once considered as a symbol of Indian royalty but is now a cheap post-meal treat. His father was never without it, and was always chewing them with the utmost delight. He even had them made ready in his pocket to offer to other people. He was a well-dressed man who would look his best even if it was just to go out and get a packet of milk. His shirt was always tucked in and his hair neatly parted sideways.

A couple of weeks after we moved in, he showed me pictures of his father and uttered with such a holistic joy in his eyes, “He looks like and Abercrombie & Fitch model, doesn’t he?”

He indeed was a handsome man. His sons inherited each of his qualities. One has embraced his love for sweets. The other has taken over his mannerisms and magnetism – he is charming and alluring, yet unostentatious and self-effacing.

Also read: Bell Peppers And My Grandmother: An Abstruse Love Affair

I can’t figure out which quality of him my husband possesses. His hairline, or his need to be in charge of everything? Now that he isn’t around to take care of their needs, who are they going to run to when the motor stops working? Or when the paint on the walls starts chipping? Or when the pregnant cat dies in the car shed right after giving birth to two adorable little kittens? My husband thrusted upon himself the responsibility of everyone in the family in the attempt to become more like his father.

He imitates and emulates him. He has become his echo. How can you become a person’s shadow when that person is dead? The whole ideology becomes inefficacious when there is no shadow to pattern oneself after. He tries to mirror him in so many ways that it looks nothing short of desperation. Imagine how much a parent must have coddled their children that when they pass, they take away their modes of functionality.

When kids grow up, why do they still need their parents to look after them? Kids should be the one to look for them and care for them. Parents deserve the life of luxury once their kids are old enough to fetch for themselves. They deserve a comfortable life where they don’t have to provide anything besides guidance and good inculcation. This dependency is deeply rooted in every Indian household. 

When he passed away, all the people who were dependent on him lost one of their limbs. His wife mourns his death in every breath she takes. She finds reasons to bring him up in conversations. “He loved mogra flowers,” she told me on Valentine’s Day when my husband surprised me with red roses. She said he would bring her jasmine garlands once a week and adorned her hair with them. He was romantic in his own cute and coy ways. 

I had never eaten paan before I got married into this family. When I saw these people enjoying the green leaves with such delight, I had a major episode of FOMO and surrendered. I asked my husband what was inside the leaves. I found out a whole lot of things go before they are eaten. Areca nuts (supari) slaked lime (chunna) katha paste, gulkand (dried rose petals dipped in sugar syrup) and menthol, if you prefer your paan minty. His father preferred zarda (smokeless tobacco) in his paan.

It is known by different names in different Indian languages. Tambul, nagavalli, nagarbel, vettile etc. It is offered as a post-meal treat in weddings. It has an extraordinary aroma courtesy of cardamom, cloves, mace and nutmeg. The leaf is then carefully folded in a triangle shape, gilauri. The paanwallahs have come a long way in 2,500 years of paan’s existence. Today they sell paan in more than 30 flavours. From butterscotch, strawberry to chocolate covered paan, the flavours will baffle you. Paan ice cream, paan chocolates and paan flavoured hookah are common all over the country. Burning fire paan is the current rage these days where the paanwallah will stuff a blazing paan inside the customer’s mouth. 

I took a bite out of my husband’s betel quid and he laughed and said, “That’s not how you eat it. You have to stuff the whole thing in your mouth. All in one go. Abba’s soul would be getting restless after witnessing this destruction.” 

It is heart-warming to see his unexpressed love towards his father emerge out so beautifully through this after dessert mouth freshener. 

Simra Sadaf, from Chennai, India, has pursued her Master’s in English Literature. With a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, she has an abundant knowledge about the workings of a society which she incorporates in her writings. Literature drives her spirit and words churn her soul.

Featured image: Flickr