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An ode to kimam wali raat: The erotic adventures of paan in Indian history

White and red outline illustration showing a disembodied pair of lips smoking a cigarette.

Teri baaton mein kiman ki khusboo hai
(Your words carry the fragrance of kimam.)

– From the song ‘Kajra re’ in Bunty aur Babli (2005)

In Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), Munna (Sanjay Dutt),  in his crusade to spread Gandhigiri,[1] gets a call from a frustrated apartment dweller complaining about the pestering deeds of his neighbour on the top floor. The latter, a wealthy-looking, gold-chained merchant, descends every morning to this man’s floor and spits out a fountain of blood-red paan right by his door. The stressed middle-aged tenant helplessly asks Munna how to confront this staunch guy who could possibly murder him in the heat of the moment. To his surprise, Munna tells him to avoid any confrontations and rather be radically selfless. Do what Gandhi says – when someone hits you on one cheek, give them your other cheek. For the tenant, this roughly translated to teaching the troublemaker a lesson of compassion. Subsequently, he follows Munna’s advice. Every time the paan-spitter would spit, our patient victim would be ready with a bucket to clean the paan stains with a reluctant but mast (carefree) smile on his face until the spitting stopped. While this act of compassion ultimately provoked our villain’s guilt and shame, we never know what becomes his next target to spit the terror of bloody-red paan stains on and who had to bear the disgust of cleaning it up.

I want to avoid going into the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence and peace with this story on paan. Instead, what interests me is the relevance of this specific scene in unfolding the history of paan, which accommodates disgust and eroticism simultaneously. From the above-painted montage, paan is seen as a symbol of disgust and an abjection that needs to be literally cleaned out for the betterment of society. While this may indicate certain classed and colonial associations with paan, going back in the pages of history we also find an unabashed commitment[2] to paan’s bittersweet romance with eroticism, desire, love, devotion, and royalty. Then how did this romance get tainted with disgust, dirt, obscenity, disrespect, and debauchery? A single thread that binds all these different feelings is perhaps their affective capacity to transgress. What seems desirable to some can disgust others. What can give pleasure to some can become obscene to many (a sexy pop song, pornography). The love and romance between two kindred souls often break the respectability norms of society (inter-caste marriage, love-jihad!). Maybe the mistake we make in the first place is to look at these feelings in isolation rather than seeing them as categories that intermesh in a contradictory manner and dare to displace the status quo. This could prove to be a good precursor to understanding paan’s discursive position in history. Holding carefully the mixture of slaked lime, catechu and gulkand (rose petal paste) on a damp heart-shaped betel leaf, wrapped delicately with four red threads, and pinned with a small elaichi (cardamom pod) on top, paan and its history shows its ability to be capacious enough to accommodate all these ingredients in one place despite the contradictions.

Earliest memories

My father was a big paan fan and a tobacco addict. It apparently runs in his family. Runs as in, now I am witnessing my close uncle suffering from an incurable brain tumour. One of the plausible reasons was tobacco addiction. When I was around ten, I would go to the bathroom and see red stains in the white sink. A sharp copperish but sweet smell of leftover kimam would hang in the humid air. Mixed with the smell of sweaty unwashed clothes, soap, and detergent, it would give off a rusted iron and blood-like odour. I would know my father was here before me. A strong feeling of disgust still embodies my memory. A memory of a corporeal feeling of a smell etched in my nostril. Why did I develop this feeling when I didn’t even know what this red colour and intoxicating smell meant? Perhaps because it lured me, or because it was “not what good girls should have”. Perhaps it intimidated me, or perhaps because my mother was always filled with a redder boiling anger when she was cleaning it.

Paan, colonialism, and sexuality

A brief look at the history of paan ties many contradictions together. Paan is not only the bearer of stories but a medium through which these stories were told. And each ingredient that goes into the making of a paan has its own narrative.

One of the prime ingredients to prepare the kimam in paan is kattha and chunna. Chunna is lime powder and kattha (catechu) is an extract of the acacia tree mixed with water. When swiftly mixed with the index finger in the betel leaf, chunna and kathha mingle and produce the classic vermillion shade. In the 17th century, Nur Jahan, empress of the great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, used this vermillion shade to tint her lips (Menon 2018). This created a new beauty trend among nawabs and courtesans to keep silver-coated paandaans, a metal box used to store all the ingredients for preparation of a paan, for this newly discovered brand of paan lipsticks. To an extent, this mixture, when taken in careful amounts was also prescribed for relief from menstrual discomfort for women in medieval times. In Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health, Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar (2005) succinctly describe the many benefits of paan as that which:

“…sweetens the breath, aids digestion, reddens the lips, and tastes divine.”

However, this shade of red was also a colour of horror in the colonial imagination. In the colonial period, when European trade merchants arrived at the ports of Surat, sheer fear gripped them as they witnessed street by-passers spitting out red blood from their mouths as if overtakenby some strange disease (see the accounts of 17th century Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci). The documentation of paan in the earliest European accounts echoes this colonial abhorrence and bewilderment. Some of these echoes resonate with the disgust expressed by the frustrated tenant at the beginning of this article. Colonial accounts describe the paan-chewing habit as the uncivilised and detestable habit of the natives causing “blackening teeth” and “ghastly marks one commonly sees on the streets”(Gowda 1951). The colonial accounts of paan reflects the Victorian attitude towards native sexuality, which was always seen as untamed and obscene. Paan, once a symbol of beauty and eroticism, was tainted with disease and disgust by Victorian morality.

Interestingly, the spitting of paan is as recent as 500 years. Traditionally, paan was chewed and swallowed. This transition from chewing and swallowing to spitting reveals a colonial conspiracy of addiction politics. This politics started as the Portuguese in the 16th century started commercialising tobacco for mass consumption. As a result, tobacco soon replaced supari, betel nut (also called areca nut), originally used for stimulation in paan. In Indian literature and mythology, the betel palm has been called an “arrow of heaven” (Gowda 1951). However, the commercialisation of tobacco sales had an indirect effect on the paan-chewing culture of India. Botanist and historian, M. Gowda writes: after the introduction of the tobacco, paan became only “an accessory, an accomplice” to the new tobacco chewing habit, a habit that created a new class of paan chewers, a habit that replaced the aromatic spices and aphrodisiacs with low-grade nuts and tobacco.

Despite the monopoly of colonial tales of paan, it has not lost its prized position for the Indian palate. From paan-flavoured kulfi to paan-flavoured condoms, paan has changed its shades, taste, ingredients, and rituals. Now we have fire paan, ice paan, chocolate paan, chai paan, and whatnot: a melting pot that carries proof of paan’s enduring strength across time. Paan has adapted with its people. It’s neither here nor there, neither a secret nor entirely acceptable. Consuming paan has become more socially accepted, respectable, and even glamorous when done in the fancy rooms of pricey hookah shops, elite restaurants, and luxurious weddings. At the same time, paan sold in small nukkads (street corners) continues to be attached with Victorian notions of shame and morality, especially because of its associations with ‘the lower class’. In any case, paan remains available in many shapes and forms.

The erotic adventures of paan

The prehistories of paan reflect a sweet sisterhood of eroticism, love, and seduction. Kama, the god of love, is believed to dwell near betel leaves (Menon 2018). The open betel leaf is offered to Gods and Goddesses in many Hindu rituals of marriage. Madhavi Menon artfully describes paan’s duality as:

“[…] both a sacred and an erotic object, offered to gods and lovers, especially in erotic poetry that blurs the boundary between the two categories. Paan is both poetic and prosaic.”

The tales and taste of paan in the Kama Sutra have the closest relation to the eroticism paan evokes. Vatsyayana articulates the grammar of seduction that paan conveys. This erotic vocabulary constitutes more than thirteen ways of paan-giving to convey the anxiety or excitement of expressing one’s feelings for the first time. Paan-giving exudes the aesthetics of the red lips, the sensuality of kimami breaths, and the poetry of clandestine glances. The list goes on from paan-giving that signals “Desperately in love!” (Kaushal Paan) with all the ingredients arranged in mathematical accuracy to paan-sending that signals “I want to get rid of you” (cinnamon-scented paan). Such is the seductive power of paan that it estranges some lovers, honours others, and unites some. In today’s age of swipe culture and disappearing messages, paan becomes a symbol of waiting. Waiting which carries a fatal form of intimacy: vulnerability. In the words of Roland Barthes (1978):

“The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.”

While the lovers await in uncertainty, it is the ritual of making paan together that also unfolds an intimate sisterhood of kimami nights. The different manners in which paans were folded in the old days were a way to signal to the saheliyas (female friends): “He is away, come home!” Dwivedi and Holkar (2005) beautifully narrate these stories:

“On festive occasions, it was the task of the zenana women to prepare the paans that were offered to the guests after the banquet. We had a lot of fun. We sat in a large circle, laughing, gossiping and teasing each other as we worked. We washed the betel leaves, snipped off the stems, and laid out the leaves in rows. We piled on the various ingredients and finally folded them in different shapes: cones or triangles or little squares held together with a clove.”

Kimam wali Raat (A kimam scented Night)

In 2021, before I was leaving Delhi, I was meeting a group of friends. It was a strange night. I was wishful for new life and also scared of closing the Dilli chapter. We laughed, sang, gossiped with our dreamy eyes drooping with memories. We bought roses, peonies, and lily of the valley for each other. The weather was surprisingly warm for a chilly January. Breezily strolling in the streets of Bengali Market, after a light dinner and gallery tour, we crossed the road to get some cigarettes. To my surprise, the small nukkad shop sold paan as well. I went into another stroll down memory lane. The indignation of my mother at the word paan, my father’s incorrigible paan addiction, “good girls don’t eat paan”, and scoldings for trying the harmless meetha paan −  all embodied disgust for my own desire to experience the kimami sweetness! Perhaps it was the sisterhood of freedom that night which gave me the strength to taste transgression. We took four cigarettes and four paans. Be it Vatsyayana, Mughal historians, or E.M. Foster’s devotion to paan, all note the art of paan eating as a tahzeeb grounded in most exquisite performance. Foster writes:

“… it is as if the whole mineral kingdom has invaded him (the novice) under a vegetable veil, for simultaneously the lime starts stinging. If he can sit still through this a heavenly peace ensues; the ingredients salute each other, a single sensation is established, and Pan, without ceasing to be a problem, becomes a pleasure.”

For “eating a paan is not for the faint-hearted, it is for the erotically and adventurously inclined.” (Menon 2018) You have to wait for the dance of minerals, spices, betel, coconut, gulkand, saunf, cardamom, and lime to bloom before rushing into fierce judgments and prejudice. While I relished this newfound romance with paan, my dear friends, unfortunately, spit their paans into their paper napkins as soon as they put them in their mouths. To our surprise, the paan shop owner asked for our cigarettes back. Had we offended his paan-making skills? After all, I doubt anyone of us had ever come across Khusrau’s (The Paan Seller) warning about paan-sellers:

“As he gave the people in his shop their leaves,
in return they surrendered to him their lives.”

So, we surrendered our cigarettes and prayed for our lives. The shopkeeper deftly opened his paandaan, took a sleek sugary neem stick, swirled it in a thick brownish-red paste, and buttered it across our cigarettes.

“Light it up, now!” He gave the cigarettes back to us.

We smoked the cigarettes and one of my friends went into a sweet trance and asked the shopkeeper, “What is it?!”

The shopkeeper smiled, and said, “Kimam”.


Anand, Seema. 2017. The Arts of Seduction. Aleph Books.

Barthes, Roland. (1978). A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Vintage.

Dave, Niyati. 2023. “Staining lips red for centuries: The heart-shaped betel leaf.” Garland Magzine.\

Dwivedi, Sharada, and Shalini Devi Holkar. 2005. Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health. New York: HarperCollins.

Forster, E. M. 1966. Abinger Harvest. California: Harcourt Brace and Co.

Khusrau, Amir. 2013. “The Paan seller.” In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau. Trans. Paul E. Losensky and Sunil Sharma. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Manucci, Niccolao. 1913. A Pepys of Mongul India, 1653-1708: 1653-1708: Being and Abridged Edition of the ‘Storia do Mogor’ of Niccolao Manucci. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Menon, Madhavi. 2018. Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India. Speaking Tiger.

Read, Cathleen B., Leonard P. Adams, and Alfred W. McCoy. 1972. The politics of heroin in Southeast Asia. Harper & Row.

Gowda, M. 1951. “The Story of Pan Chewing in India.” Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 14, no. 8:181–214.

[1] Gandhigiri refers to Munna’s (Sanjay Dutt) own half-baked version of Gandhian philosophy on truth and non-violence.

[2] See Seema Anand (2017), Madhavi Menon (2018), and Niyati Dave (2023) in the references.

इस लेख को हिंदी में पढ़ने के लिए यहाँ क्लिक करें।

Cover Image: Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash