Wednesday, June 23

Kolkata’s famous paanwallahs spread sweetness amid odds

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A chewy, juicy paan has been India’s answer to mouth fresheners since Southeast Asian traders introduced it around 3,500 years ago. And the elaborate rituals we see our paanwallahs practice while making us a mouthful are over 1,500 years old. Paan making has been a thriving business, often handed down generations, in India since then. But then came the quick-fix alternative—gutkha. Shops that once saw people queuing up for a special paan were forced to sell gutkha and cigarettes to stay afloat. The situation is no different in Kolkata, where iconic paan shops have been battling the odds for quite a while now. And then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.Kalpataru Bhandar near College Square has been grappling with the changing reality for a while now. “Mine was an exclusive paan shop, but I’m now selling cigarettes and gutkha to keep the business afloat. People don’t have the patience for a special paan because it takes time to make,” said the current owner of the 92-year-old shop, Shyamal Dutta.The pandemic and the ensuing lockdown made things worse. For Arvind Kumar Chowdhury, owner of the 30-year-old Chowdhury Paan Corner on Sarat Bose Road, reopening his shop after the lockdown felt like starting all over again. “It was a struggle. Three of our employees went home to Bihar and one stayed back,” said Arvind, whose shop is known for its meetha gundi paan.
For Md Shahbuddin, an owner of the 77-year-old Taj Mahal Paan Shop near New Market, sales have dipped drastically. “Before the lockdown I made around `25,000 a day selling our specialty ice paan. Now, I barely make `5,000 a day,” he rued.
Some like Parsuram Sah, who runs a family of 13, are still hopeful about the future. “Last year was tough, but it couldn’t stop me from being positive about the future. The love I get from my regular customers gives me the courage to keep pushing ahead,” he said.

A different future
Among the many paan shops along the Gariahat road, Parsuram Sah has been running one since 1974. But Parsuram is not too keen on letting his children carry the legacy forward. “My eldest daughter is preparing for CA second round, my eldest son is studying MBBS in the Armed Forces Medical College, my younger son is studying in IISC Bangalore and my youngest daughter is awaiting her Class VIII results. She’s a keen dancer and has been participating in various reality shows,” said the proud father.

Famous customers, goodwill galore
Taj Mahal Paan Shop has had many celebrity customers over the years. Owner Md Shahbuddin said, “I wasn’t born when Md Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar visited the shop for paan, but we have photographs of their visits. Since then, songs of Rafi saab always play in our shop.”
Celebs and dignitaries have been visiting Kalpataru Bhandar for years now. “Ours was the shop of choice for Uttam Kumar and Manna Dey. Dilip Kumar, Md Rafi and PC Sorcar Senior also visited us. Former Presidents Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Husain and former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao also ordered paan from our shop whenever they visited Kolkata. We have certificates from them,” Shyamal Dutta told us.

Source: Times of India

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