When David Cameron came to a shining India and spoke of a common culture, he failed to mention the problem Britons have with paan. Coloured drool and the stiff upper lip just do not go together.
Who amongst us has been immune to the charms of the paan, whether we partake of it regularly or on rare occasions? Our paanwallah gets cult status as he applies choona to the betel leaf and expertly adds aromatic supari and gulkand, folds it, sometimes piercing a clove to set it. The shop down the road is an economic leveller as people from all strata wait for the triangle to work its magic and melt in the mouth. There is delicious sinfulness as the lips are aflame with a touch of crimson. Can we forget the wickedness of Waheeda Rehman dancing to “Paan khaaye sainyan hamaaro” alluding to the aftermath of the mulmul kurta with red-red splotches? Indeed, there is also a palang tod paan intended to transform local libidinous Clark Kents into Supermen.
Cameron stuck to the safe areas of the India-Britain wants — whitewashed with Shahrukh Khan and Sachin Tendulkar. Against these detergent and wax-work heroes, with slovenly guile he pitted Pakistani terrorism. What surprised me, though, was his reference to common food. The UK is into the chutney Mary sort of Indian cuisine that has fallen prey to the British palate where even a nargisi kebab tastes like shepherd’s pie. Except for those execrable pricey British-Indian restaurants, you won’t find the English significantly enamoured of our food. Heck, they hate our smells.
It isn’t surprising then that the prime minister studiously avoided any mention of how the Brent Council is planning to spend a good £17,000 to educate people of Indian origin against paan spit and will fine offenders with £80. The local councillor had said, “Paan staining is unsightly and contributes to a negative image that Wembley is dirty and rundown, which can lead to increased levels of crime and anti-social behaviour. By working together with the police and the local community we are confident that people will think twice before spitting on our streets.”
Ah, there goes the salivating bubble of David. ‘Our streets’ must not be messed up by ‘those’. I must admit that when I read this report I was secretly thrilled. It was like hitting back at the Raj, akin to a civil disobedience movement, the paan stains like graffiti written with blood. I have seen these people create their own world right there, and you can’t tell that you are not in India when you are in Wembley or Southall. It is an almost satirical recreation of India and paan represents it so well.
I understand hygiene, I understand image, but how can a place that is dirty and rundown increase levels of crime? Is this British wishful thinking to ensure that those with impure antecedents do not intrude elsewhere and are shown their place? Why would the Gujaratis and Punjabis create havoc in their own homes? Some of them have expressed colonised disgust over the spittle, but most lead pretty ordinary, hardworking, isolated lives. They aren’t waiting to be knighted. No Curry King lives there.
Cameron’s 90-strong contingent, the largest since 1947, appeared to be the neo East India Company with a designer logo. He did the IT sector, the business community, cited the heroes, and dissed the neighbour. He could have been Lord Mountbatten patting the young punks of globalisation. Of course, he’d take our ones with close shaves. Their walls look like the Victoria and Albert Museum, not paan spit. They are ready to form their separate state of Indian illusion with western monogrammed cooperation.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2010.