Batuk the paanwala

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Batuk was a paanwala (betel seller) who had a small ramshackle shop at the corner of the lane of my family home in Kolkata. This was a typical paan shop with cigarettes, one brass pot with water, several small pots for the usual accessories that go into the making of the paan. Strings of pan masala lined the front of the shop, if it could be called one. A rope burning at its tip hung in the corner for those wanted to light a cigarette. And lastly an aluminium bucket being used as a waste bin was kept below. Batuk had two wooden boxes stacked neatly on the side, for him to climb up into his shop. He would squat comfortably for hours an end, chatting away with whoever paid attention. The radio blared with channels churning out Bengali pop music to the unsuspecting passerby who had just stopped by for a paan or a cigarette.

Batuk was a landmark. ‘ও দাদা বটুকের দোকান দিয়ে বাঁ দিকে! (Hey mister, take a left turn from Batuk’s shop)’. Retired men would habitually saunter there for a paan and gossip dime a dozen about the state of politics, education and kids of this generation. Office goers would stop there for a smoke when they had strict embargo at home. Children would keep their bags to rest their tired shoulders and suck on sweet meats. He was very popular with the maids who stood and chatted up to him as they chewed paan or dragged on a bidi.

In short, Batuk was the release point. A short stout man, with large moustaches and an ever wide smile from ear to ear. Red teeth from gutka and a full throated laughter. His paan were the talk of the colony and people came in cars to buy dozens of them regularly.

It was the month of May. Most of the exams were over and families were planning their holidays. Batuk’s shop was more happening than usual. More free time, so more আড্ডা (gossip session). More business and more হৈ চৈ (hullabaloo).

In this backdrop, on a idyllic Sunday morning, a police van comes and halts at Batuk’s shop. Nothing unusual. All local police station guys were his friends. But the trouble was that they were accompanied by two men with stiff upper lips. The two swiftly got out of the slowly moving van, glared at Batuk and said ‘চলো থানা’ (come to the police station).

Amidst a sudden hush, Banerji babu pushed forward and asked a junior constable what the problem was. ‘He is dealing in drugs!’, the Constable whispered conspiratorially, as his superior looked at him glaringly. Banerji babu was exploding with excitement. ‘Don’t tell anybody,’ he blurted to Bishnu, the servant boy who was standing at his gate, as he shared the juicy piece of gossip with him. Well, within the next ten minutes Batuk was on the lips of every customer he had in the পাড়া (locality). Meanwhile, Batuk closed his tiny shop and got whisked away in the police van.

After hours of extreme suspense, Batuk was dropped back at his shop early noon. His entire customer base from the locality had something or the other to buy from his shop at the time. Batuk was grinning from ear to ear. Banerji Babu took the lead. ‘কি হলো বটুক (what happened Batuk)?’ As the congregation waited with bated breath, Batuk got up, his chest swelling with pride, said, ‘বড়ো বাবু (head of police station) রোজ সকালে আমার থেকে দশটা পান চেয়েছেন, ফিরী (wants ten pans delivered to him every morning, free of cost, from my shop)!’

‘রোজ? এটা বড্ডো বাড়াবাড়ি কিন্তু (Everyday? That’s too much)!’ Banerji babu, envious of the windfall, was shaking his head with much disapproval. ‘না দাদা! উনি এই বছর আমার ছেলে মেয়েকে কম টাকায় মিশনারি ইস্কুলে ভর্ত্তি করায়া দিবেন কইছেন। কতো পান দিয়া দিমু এইর জন্যা! (No Dada. He is getting admission for my son and daughter in the missionary school at subsidised fees this year. No paan compares to this gesture.)’ In one stroke, he silenced the group. For a Bengali, education is supreme. Batuk went on to add, ‘আমার বাচ্চাগুলা আফিসে কাজ করবো। পানের দোকানে বসতে হইবোনা। (my children will work in offices and not run a paan shop like me.)’

Nothing compares to a father’s dream and his aspirations for his children. Batuk moved a notch up in the eyes of his customers. In fact, from then on, Batuk got more respect from his customers like a ভদ্রলোক (gentleman). His blaring music was suitably toned down with a smattering of ghazal channels.

But Batuk remained the same in his disposition. Crouched in the corner of his ramshackle shop, a small paanwala with a wide grin and big dreams for his children.

Batuk was the epitome of an Indian father. He always reminds me of G K Chesterton’s quote, aptly expressed, ‘Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another’.

About purobighoshmohan

Advocate, Bombay High Court
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