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Harbinger of Good Luck

Betel leaf

If people avoided me because they thought I brought them ill luck, I shall feel very miserable. However, if people thought I brought them good luck and made a beeline to catch a glimpse of my face the first thing in the morning, it would make me feel good at first but, if this continued, my life would become much more miserable!

"Bohoni", a story by celebrated pre-Independence era writer, Munshi Premchand, narrates the misery of a man thus afflicted. It is, or used to be, a common superstitious belief among shopkeepers that if a "lucky" person made the first purchase (bohoni) from their shop, they would do good business throughout the day; on the other hand, if an "unlucky" person were to make the first purchase, the business would suffer.

The narrator of the story is addicted to betel leaves. He goes to buy betel leaves from a new shop near his house. Unfortunately, on the day when the narrator is the first customer at the shop, the shop owner gets hardly any business. This leads the shop owner to conclude that the narrator is an "unlucky" person; she openly declares this to the narrator. The narrator, of course, wants to wipe off the stigma cast upon him. He hits upon a plan; the narrator urges his friends to buy betel leaves from the shop and even pays for the betel leaves. Well, if the friends get to eat betel leavel for free why should they refuse? The shop owner's business flourishes and she now believes that the narrator is a person who brings good luck. That should have been the happy ending. But, does the story indeed have a happy ending?

A nice and simple story that, perhaps, is also trying to convey that life would be a lot more easier if we learn to say "No"; always trying to be in the good books of others might not be a good idea after all.

The other day when a new betel leaf shop opened across the road along my house, I was elated. There wasn't any other betel leaf shop within 200 metres of my house. I had to make several trips to the crossway where there was always a huge crowd of buyers; sometimes, I had to wait a long time before my turn came; I found this wait very exasperating.

I don't remember when and how I became addicted to betel leaves. But if someone were to keep folding betel leaves into neat triangles and passing them on to me, I would, perhaps, never refuse to accept. If not a large part of my income, at least a small portion of it was definitely spent in satisfying my craving for betel leaves.

Many times, I had resolved to buy a paandaan(box for holding betel leaves). But buying a paandaan is no child's play; for me it was akin to buying an elephant. Even suppose, after grave risk to myself, I did buy a paandaan, it wasn't going to prove to be a fairy's magic bag where I could dip my hands and draw out a tidy triangular ball at will. I would still have to buy betel leaves from the market, wash them, remove and throw away the stale leaves, and fold the good ones into triangles five times a day; not an easy task by any means! I have seen women, belonging to rich families, always engaged in the sole activity of maintenance and management of paandaans

But, supposing I do find some way to overcome these inconveniences, who will slice the areca nuts? The very sight of the scissors makes me shiver. In case it is necessary and unavoidable to undertake such work, I would rather use a mortar and pestle to grind the nuts. But don't ever ask me to use a scissor; I will never touch that thing! Whenever I see somebody using a scissor-cutter to slice the nuts, it fills me with wonder - to me this sight is much more awesome than someone dancing on the sharp-edged blade of a sword.

Now, suppose, if even this matter is somehow resolved, but who will complete the final intimidating task of mixing lime and catechu? Is mixing lime and catechu an easy task? At least I do not know the method. I have seen experts failing in this task; so, how can I, a novice, expect to attain perfection?

If the paan-seller adds more lime by mistake, one can always reprimand him and take a little more catechu to neutralize. The real problem occurs when you visit a friend's house and the paan is brought to you from the women's quarters within. One has to chew and swallow the stuff although it is like swallowing a fly or gulping poison. You cannot complain; civility acts as a constraint. Sometimes when you pop the paan into your mouth, it feels as if the tongue is on fire - as though someone has forced hot mercury into your throat. It is beyond my comprehension as to how mistakes of this kind can occur; I admit I am a greenhorn, but even I don't apply so much lime. I think these are not mistakes but deliberate acts; it is an expression of their wrath! When you roll your sleeves and raise hell just because breakfast has been delayed, the only recourse the women have to take revenge is to add more salt to the curry or apply more lime to the paan!

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