Whenever I think of Meghalaya, I think of waterfalls and hills and rains and yes, red stained lips and teeth of almost all the Khasi people. Barring a few, almost all of them chew betel leaves all the time.
What is paan in Hindi heartland, is Kwai here; areca nut and lime wrapped in a betel leaf. Man and woman, all over the Khasi Hills, carry a small pouch carrying a few betel leaves, areca nut and sometimes lime as well. And all the three are in abundance here. Lime is extracted since very old times as the hills are rich in limestone. West Khasi hills resemble very much to Kerala in the humidity, rain, dense foliage and tall standing Areca nut trees. Areca nuts thrive in humid and wet climate and thus finds itself at home here. It thrives in the area owing to heavy rainfall and good drainage. The areca nut is a shade loving plant. The climatic conditions of Meghalaya suit the trees due to the high rainfall (3000 mm). Steep slopes allow continual drainage and clouds provide enough shade for the luxuriant growth of the plant. Gulkand (rose chutney) and tobacco are not added to it and that is what differentiates it from paan.
And so prevalent is its use that at times, distances were measured in the units of Kwai, which is, how many Kwais will be chewed to cover the distance!
Kwai is ingrained deeply in Khasi culture. As with all other Khasi things, a folktale is associated with Kwai also. This is the legend of Kwai, tympew, shun and duma:betel nut, betel leaf, lime and tobacco. Legend has it that once a poor couple-Shing and Lak ratoi were visited by a rich friend named Nick Mahajon. They were happy to receive their friend in thier poor shack. They wanted to offer some eatable to the friend. Lak had nothing in the kitchen, She went to ask for some rice from neighbours but they were also poor and had nothing. lak could not find anything. The couple could not offer anything to the friend and committed suicide out of shame by stabbing themselves with a knife. When Nick Mahajon found what had happened to his friends, he felt that his wealth meant nothing without his friend. He too committed suicide. The tragedy led to the Khasi society accepting the offering of Kwai as the good gesture of hospitality. If people could not offer anything, they could at least afford a Kwai. Since then offering Kwai is as good as offering friendship and honor. Any time is Kwai time here and any place is the place to get a kwai.
Areca nut trees dot the Meghlaya landscape. You may find bright orange fruits spread out along the roads, to be soaked in the water to remove the husk and get the Kernel aka Supari.
Occasionally, I enjoy a paan with gulkand, lime and catechu but without Areca nut and tobacco. Intrigued by this ubiquitous chewing, I also tried it as the Khasi like it- with areca and lime. But the areca was too harsh for me. It left sores in my mouth which were then smoothed by a generous helping of the Cherra honey.