Updated: Jul 9, 2020
By Anujaya Krishna
Covid-19 tales from Lucknow, India
This piece is a tribute to an old lady who was very special to me. I wrote this to paint a vivid picture of her and to keep her memory alive for eternity.
During the lockdown, I noticed that most of the betel leaf (paan) shanties that adorn the many nooks and crannies of Indian roads had closed. It was strange to see this. Never in my life had I witnessed such a scenario. The betel leaf shops are so small and so numerous that even when bigger shops may close now and then, the betel leaf shops stayed open.
For the uninitiated, betel leaf is a common edible item in India. It is a green, heart-shaped leaf with deep-set veins and a small stalk between its rounded edges. It has a darker tone on the underside and is a paler green on top. It comes in various varieties. Some are bitter when chewed and some melt in the mouth. The leaf is garnished with some katha (also known as cutch or Japan earth) and a streak of chuna (soda lime) that gives it a sharp flavor. In a traditional preparation, this combination is topped with supari (areca nut) which is either whole, loosely ground, or diced. Sometimes, a sprinkling of peppermint crystals will be added. The fancier meetha paan (sweet betel leaf) is enhanced with dollops of jelly infused with the delicious scent of saffron, as well as sugar-coated fennel seeds. The result is a riot of flavor and colour. This is often followed with a brown powder-like mouth freshener which, when had by itself, is a minty pick-me-up! If you are lucky, the vendor, an artist at work with betel leaves, will add some coconut powder or coconut shavings with his nimble fingers.
The betel leaf is special to me as it reminds me of childhood, specifically the carefree days of summer vacation. My grandmother’s sister used to stay with us during the summer. She would sit, clad in a cotton saree and regale us with tales about her childhood, her neighbourhood, and other goings-on in her life.
I especially remember her for one special thing: a paan dabba (betel leaf box) that she would bring with her everywhere she went. It was a silvery tin box. It was a thing of wonder and astonishment for me. The box contained a thin plate with six or seven betel leaves on it, each carefully wrapped in a piece of wet, red cloth. Underneath the lid was a mezzanine floor of sorts which held small, round metal bowls embedded in the metal, just above the base. One bowl was filled with katha, another with chuna and another had supari. Another bowl held cloves and another held parts of green cardamom. The last bowl was usually empty but grandmother would fill it with whatever condiment I desired on my paan when she visited.
Whenever she made a paan, she would stay deeply engrossed in the process and smile at the sheer pleasure of it. It was like watching a magician at work. Being a child, I was not given much betel leaf, but it was always a very welcome delight. No wonder I nicknamed her “Paan Dadi” (literally, betel leaf granny)!
In time, work and life curtailed the careless abandon of summer vacations, and my “Paan Dadi” visited less frequently. With the passing of her sister (my paternal grandmother), the links between us were worn thinner. We saw even less of each other and just checked in over the phone every now and then.
Paan dadi lived with her son and grandchildren after her husband passed away. Later on, she moved to a place close to my house and our ties were renewed to an extent. But even then, we were going about our own busy lives and barely had time to savor vacations and paan like we used to. As a matter of fact, Paan Dadi stopped having paan as age took hold of her body.
When the national lockdown was imposed, I started to see things more clearly and from a new perspective. I read stories about how so many elderly people lived alone and found it hard to survive not just because of the psychological and physical stresses of the pandemic. I remember one particularly touching image in which a woman who had come to visit her grandmother planted a kiss on the glass between them. Her wrinkled but happy face glistened with tears of joy on the other side.
In India, many elderly people rely on caretakers or nurses. With the strict lockdown in force, many nurses did not have travel passes, meaning they could not tend to the people in their care. Many elders were perplexed when they suddenly found themselves alone. It was even more of a challenge to explain to them the gravity of the pandemic and then seriousness of the resultant measures being taken. For some, lack of literacy is what leads to ignorance about such issues. For others, it is the mere fact that they have never witnessed something like this on such a massive scale, and therefore fail to grasp it.
But the lockdown has a silver lining for the elderly. Many who had been left alone as others in the family went to school or work now had family around to keep them company. Now, every house was abuzz throughout the day as people worked from home or attended online classes. Some old people took the lockdown as an opportunity to learn something new. I came across the story of a 95-year old woman named Mani Bai (Ba, for short), who learned English from her family in the process of sharing recipes for her Gujarati delicacies via audio clips and messages. Previously, she could only speak Hindi, Kutchi and Tamil.
Some elderly people are serving their communities in these difficult times. K. Kamalathal, an 85-year-old from Tamil Nadu, sells idlis. Idlis are a kind of fluffy rice cake usually served with chutney and curry-like sambhar. She started her business with her husband around 30 years ago. Each idli sells for 1 Rupee (about 0.013 USD). When lockdown began, she refused to raise the price since she did not want the poor to go hungry. It is no secret that a great many people in India cannot manage to scrape together even two square meals a day, and many have lost their livelihoods amid the lockdown.
A few days after I wrote the first draft of this piece, I learned that my Paan Dadi had fallen into poor health due to age. After the lockdown had eased a bit, with precaution, I fortunately got the chance to see her one last time. I was told that she was delirious and would not be able to recognize anyone, but love has its own ways. The moment I clasped her hand, she called me by my nickname and held my hand long enough for me to cradle her warmth in my heart forever. A few days later, I received news of her passing. I did not cry. The image of her gleaming eyes and caring hands as she clasped mine for the last time remains with me. And I still have a paan dabba at home as a reminder of Paan Dadi.
Anujaya Krishna is a legal professional, author and educator, hailing from Lucknow, India. Her published works include a book entitled Sports Law and an anthology of poems entitled Watch the Nib Dance.