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Identity – The Red Cloth

January 11, 2021 2 min read

In about half of India, this red cloth stands for a very specific interest.

If you like this it a MUST-have and fans will go even 20 kilometers in super-dense cities like Mumbai to get their hands on the best available.

And when there’s a post-dinner craving, it is debilitating if the object of one’s desire cannot be found!

With a fan following that numbers at least as much as the population of Australia (as per my estimates), suppliers set up profitable corner stores all over the country.

And in your own city, you know where they sit and go and get your fix. Or you don’t and you crave and you talk about it lovingly.

I belong to the non-fan group. So when my friend visiting from Mumbai speaks passionately of her deprivation (as we couldn’t find any here) I listen on with indifference and complete lack of empathy.

And then one day, as my car passed a busy road, I spotted the wet red cloth.

I knew that this discovery would be BIG for her. So I stopped the car and took pictures.

And sent her just this on whatsapp.

That Red Cloth is a symbol that conveys one and only one thing to all of India:

The Paanwala’s stall or the seller of betel nut leaves.

Paan is an after-dinner thingy (can’t find an appropriate word to describe everything it means) consisting of a betel leaf rolled expertly into a pyramid and with various fillings inside. Lime paste, Katha, Tobacco leaves, Zarda, betel nut bits, fennel seeds, sweetened rose petals, coconut shavings and many other exotic bits – all rolled into a 3inch triangle.

Mouth freshening, digestives and many other ‘great’ properties have been cited to justify the consumption of Paan.

It is too tiny to be called a snack and not necessarily sweet to be called a dessert. It is just one mouthful but can be enjoyed over hours. In some places Paan is constantly being chewed between meals.

And there is no doubt that all Indians living in other countries have either requested traveling friends or on their own travels have been requested by friends to carry back paan from XYZ seller at least once! And the receivers are forever grateful to get this gift that costs just over 10 cents! Such is the intensity with which people love their paan

When the consumer base is as large at 25-50 million people, naturally variants evolve to please the diverse palate subgroups as some might like a sharper leaf and others a sweeter one.

So under the red cloth, the paanwala stocks all the variants. And that red cloth that is kept wet to keep the leaves fresh.

The band of paan makers that are found all over the country, have an unwritten code announcing their presence. No MBA. No degree in business. No advertising agency. No formal alliance or association to dictate strategy or policy. Each his own boss.

And yet, they share an age-old identity that is conveyed simply and effectively through that little red cloth.

As we say in Indlish – culture is “like this only”.



Jan 2021

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