Eating paan isn’t new to Indians and in cities such as Mumbai, you’re introduced to it by the graffiti of red spit stains left by many. In Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, Kwai (paan/betel leaf with lime paste and areca nut) is consumed by all--kids, men and women--and is available everywhere, be it paan shops, people’s houses orconferences. But Meghalayans don’t leave behind any red trails and chewing Kwai has a special cultural significance. As per the folklore of Khasis, a major tribal community of Meghalaya, it acts as an equalizer between the rich and poor.
As the story goes, a rich man and poor man were childhood friends belonging to the same hills, but the latter moved to a distant village after marriage. Whenever the poor man visited his native place to meet family, the duo spent hours together and the rich man offered him sumptuous meals.
But villagers gossiped that the poor man was merely boasting about having a rich friend, compelling the poor man to invite him home. The rich man promptly agreed, but the poor couple ran out of food. Villagers didn’t spare a morsel and disappointed with nothing to offer, the poor couple killed themselves. That night a notorious thief entered their house and saw the dead bodies. Fearing that villagers would blame him, he too killed himself. Pained at the reason of his friend’s death, the rich man prayed for a way to keep customs alive without causing the poor to suffer.
Since then offering Kwai to visiting friends is a part of Khasi etiquette. The areca nut signifies the rich man; lime paste and betel leaf--the husband and wife, and the place between the lower lip and gum where Khasi women keep the tobacco is the thief’s hiding place.
With inputs from Bindo M Lanong and a book on Khasi folklore