The humble Kwai made a very special appearance at my Bangalore home last week. Preciously wrapped in banana leaves, the Kwai had travelled all the way from East Khasi Hills in the North East to the Deccan Plateau in the South. Kwai is nothing new to me and I have my usual rendezvous with it each time I visit home, but seeing it perched on a ceramic plate atop my dining table made me nostalgic and evoked special sentiments in me. My mind immediately took off on a virtual tour of my homeland, Meghalaya – the abode of clouds. Everything associated with Kwai flashed before my mind like a continuous slideshow and I started missing my pretty little homeland with renewed vigor. It suddenly occurred to me that Kwai was such a unique aspect of the culture of Meghalaya and I wondered how many people know about it.
Kwai is the combination of a neatly folded betel leaf (paan) smeared with a generous dose of lime and areca nut, which is chewed with the optional tobacco leaf. While chewing paan is common place in India, the state of Meghalaya has a very special relationship with their paan and areca nut. All the three tribes of Meghalaya – Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos are equally passionate about it – ‘Kwai’ for the Khasis and Jaintias, ‘Gue’ for the Garos. An integral part of the traditional tribal culture, Kwai brings people together regardless of their backgrounds and is considered to be an equalizer between the rich and the poor. People irrespective of their age and gender are literally addicted to it. Chewing paan by young children may be frowned upon in other parts of India but not in Meghalaya where even school children can be spotted chewing Kwai even though most schools have it banned. Associated with red lips and a constant chomp, Kwai is of special significance to the tribal etiquette in Meghalaya.
Kwai is an integral part of all formal and informal gatherings – official, social, or religious. Whenever you visit a Khasi family, you will be welcomed with Kwai and it is considered to be a mark of respect and honour. Women carry Kwai in pouches tied around their waists, while men have it in their pockets. Sometimes, Kwai may also be carried in small tin boxes made specifically for this purpose. It is fairly common to greet each other by offering Kwai, which in turn indicates offering a hand of friendship and honour. Refusing Kwai is associated with bad manners. Besides Kwai is a boon during the cold winter months as it gives an instant boost to the body temperature. The humble Kwai can be used for many other miscellaneous purposes as well. Such as, Kwai-chewers use the coir of the betel nut to clean their teeth and scrub off Kwai stains as it leaves deep red stains on the teeth and tongue. The importance of Kwai can be gauged from the fact that in earlier days it was used as a unit for measuring distance – how many Kwais are chewed to cover a distance!
Scientific researches over the past decades have evidences to indicate the carcinogenic effects of areca nut. Notwithstanding, Kwai is deeply rooted in the culture of Meghalaya, the symbol of hospitality and its significance will not wane away any time soon. The significance of areca nut spreads out to the neighbouring states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram as well.
Over the years the traditional Kwai has seen quite a bit of change with the addition of ginger and coconut as other ingredients, surely influenced by the common paan. But most of the local people swear by their traditional Kwai.
But, the one thing that I am most proud of is, despite its obsession, people in Meghalaya manage to keep the red stains of the Kwai on their ever smiling lips. The land is untainted by smear marks, characteristic of the paan chewing habit in other parts of the country. This is probably because of the cleanliness obsessed native people or because tobacco is not usually used in Kwai – a detail that perhaps makes this hill tradition a safer addiction than its counterparts.
I missed mentioning how the Kwai landed into my second home, Bangalore. A Khasi friend was staying with me while on a visit to the garden city. Addicted to Kwai, it was like her lifeline. It baffled me to see that she had gotten 200 rolls of Kwai for a period of four days, which amounts to 50 per day. The sheer number of Kwai neatly stacked in my refrigerator amused and astonished me. It got me thinking about the importance of Kwai in her life and I decided to write about it.
Kwai Khasi Folklore —The story behind Kwai, tympew, shun, and duma (betel nut, betel leaf, lime and tobacco):
It’s a tale of friendship between a wealthy woman, Ka Mahajon and a poor man, U Baduk who grow up together. Baduk moves to another village after marrying Ka Lak. Whenever Baduk goes to his ancestral village, he makes it a point to visit his rich friend. Mahajon in turn would give fruits and vegetables to Baduk to take back home. Baduk and Luk feel they should return the favour and invites Mahajon to come over some day and have dinner with them. Then, one day Mahajon goes to her friend’s house. Baduk and Lak are overjoyed to see her. However, on that day there is no food in their house. Lak goes to the neighbours to request for some food but gets none. Disappointed and ashamed, the couple kills themselves as they cannot bear to face their friend. Mahajon, who was waiting for the couple in the courtyard, wonders what happened and enters the home only to find her best friend and his wife dead. Disheartened and shocked, she feels her life is useless without her friend. Mahajon too kills herself. In the meanwhile, a thief enters the home while running away from people who were chasing him. He hides for a while in the house and discovers the three dead bodies. Scared of being accused of murder, he too kills himself. The villagers are aghast when they get to know of this unfortunate incident. They pray to God that something like this should never happen again and even the poorest man should have something to offer to visiting guests. God answers their prayers by transforming Ka Mahajon into betel nut, U Baduk into the betel leaf, and Ka Luk into lime. That is why betel leaf and lime are always served together. The thief is transformed into tobacco. The place between the lower lip and gum where Khasi women keep the tobacco is the thief’s hiding place. The humble Kwai was born making the lives of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo tribes incomplete without it.