A paan for Rs 5,000
Tara Paan Centre in Aurangabad offers a betel leaf that can refresh your taste buds and lighten your pockets, all at once
It was 11 pm, and old Aurangabad city had gone to bed, except for an alley in Osmanpura, which was suffering from midnight cravings. People in cars and bikes were thronging the alley, similar to making their way towards a shrine. The shrine, in this case, was a 48-year-old paan centre, which was drawing people post their dinner. Tara Paan Centre offers 51 varieties of paan and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Aurangabad. Its price ranges from Rs 7 to Rs 5,000, while offering a paan for every age group, taste bud and even a few diseases.
As we reached the paan centre, a boy in his twenties came running towards our car window and asked, "Kya laoon?" When we asked about the whereabouts of the owner, he directed us towards Mohammed Sarfuddin Siddiqui. In a white kurta-pyjama and matching beard, the 71-year-old said hello to some of his regulars and asked us, "Kya khaoge, saab? This is how we greet every customer; other enquiries can come later."
Mohammed Sarfuddin Siddiqui founded Tara Paan Centre in Aurangabad in 1970. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
The cherry on top of an assignment such as this is that your interview begins with a masala paan with a cherry on top. Later, Siddiqui tells us his story. "You won't believe now, but I have completed matriculation, that, too, in the 1960s. My parents wanted me to do some clerical job in Mumbai, but I had big ideas about life. I was fascinated with Bollywood. I was staying at my uncle's place in Bhendi Bazaar. My job search ended at a hotel near Crawford Market. I worked there as a waiter - yes, a matric-passed boy was working as a waiter - but, I enjoyed working. Perhaps, the habit of serving people was imbibed there."
En route to stars
One day, while serving tea to a customer, Siddiqui discovered that the customer had connections with stars such as Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, and so on. "Next day, he took me to Roshan Studio, where Kader Khan was rehearsing a scene with some junior artistes. He [Khan] asked me to enact something. I did a scene from Mughal-e-Azam like a one-act play." Khan was pleased with the audition and offered Siddiqui the role of a junior artiste. "But, maybe I was not good-looking or talented enough, I never received an opportunity above a junior artiste. I had left my hotel job and was not excelling in the film industry. My mother, Najma Begum, asked me to return to Aurangabad. After wasting three to four years, I was back to square one."
But, Begum had other ideas; she, in fact, had a business plan in mind. "She gave me the idea of starting a paan centre. I told her, 'I am a matric-pass guy. You want me to serve people paan?' She said, 'Sabse bada hai rog, kya kahenge log? [The biggest disease is thinking what people will say].'" In 1970, Begum sold her jewellery, collected Rs 9,000 and rented a 5x5 ft space in Osmanpura, opposite to where the new centre dazzles today. "She not only gave her life savings, but also taught me different [recipes] of paan."
At the time there were 700 paan centres in Aurangabad, and a commiserate number of paan enthusiasts. "We started with the regular four to five varieties. Initially, we used to buy betel leaves from the local wholesaler, but then we started buying from Hyderabad and Himachal Pradesh. Paan is not like any other food; it's a customised item. The paanwala has to prepare it based on the interest of the customer."
From the basic version (betel leaf, slaked lime paste or chuna, katha paste, areca nut and tobacco), Siddiqui started adding varieties: meetha paan with mukhwas, chocolate paan with chocolate paste, Banarasi paan with extra chuna, and Calcutta (Kalkatta) paan. Several customers gave their suggestions to Siddiqui, which he readily incorporated. In fact, according to Arif Khan, a loyal customer for the last 25 years, that's the reason behind the success of Tara Paan Centre.
"The uniqueness of Mohammed saab is that he grasps the interest and inclination of the customer, and remembers it. So, the next time you visit, he can tell you which paan you want. I think, that's why he's popular after 48 years," he says.
Going one step further, herbs were added to the paan, creating edible medicines. Faiyyaz Siddiqi, another customer of 20 years, says, "In the earlier days, no one liked to have medicines given by hakims and vaidyas, so they used to add it in paan. Even Mohammed saab has a paan for diseases ranging from constipation to choked nose."
Pain relieved from paan
The paan industry was shaken in the 1990s with the arrival of cigarettes, gutkha and flavoured paan supari in the market. "Chewing paan began to be considered a bad habit," says Siddiqui. "Even films showed villains chewing paan, which sent the wrong message. Spitting paan in public had also become a nuisance, while cigarettes became a status symbol, and adversely affected the paan business. Now, every paanwala has accepted it: we won't survive if we don't sell cigarettes."
To make paan trendy again, Tara Paan Centre began to innovate in earnest. Honey, tutti-frutti and cheese were added; herbs that claimed to act like aphrodisiacs were introduced. "In Mumbai, this paan is called palang-tod paan. I call it a Couple paan, and sell it for Rs 3,000. Many people add cannabis or some other material, which makes you excited; I add herbs that don't have any side effects. And yes, I have tested it myself."
The most expensive paan at the centre in the centre is Kohinoor Masala (Rs 5,000), which has in its expensive folds honey, rosewater, mushq (musk), zaffran (saffron), agar (liquid fragrance) and a few secret herbs. "In fact, if someone has it, even their sweat becomes fragrant." Despite the changes in the world, Siddiqui is convinced nothing will change people's appetite for paan. "In the last 48 years, after every decade, I thought, 'This is it. Nobody will eat paan anymore.' But it has survived. In this span of time, paan sellers in Aurangabad have increased from 700 to approximately 4,700. My staff has reached to 23. Every day, I sell more than 10,000 paan." As we make our way past the snaking queue at his shop, we know he's right. The world will always have room for a fragrant aftertaste.
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