Great-grandmother Mirambi snorts tobacco from a tin that she keeps tucked into her sleeve. She taps the crinkled leaves onto the back of her hands, and snatches them up with a quick breath through her nostril. The process is repeated three, four times each hour.
My sister and I sit across from her in the lounge room, the sodden heat of an Indian summer seeping in through the cracks around the windows. My sister’s lip curls a little with distaste at each tap, each snort.
The tobacco is like an entrée to the main course of paan, the addictive betel seeds wrapped in a bay leaf and chewed into a sticky, messy wad in Mirambi’s mouth. Her smile is rendered red from the seeds, her saliva a frothy, rabies stain on the edges of her mouth.
‘You girls are like little dolls,’ she croons, her smile slightly glazed. ‘Little dolls, aren’t they?’
The question is directed to great-aunt Fatimah, sitting placidly beside Mirambi. Fatimah smiles benignly.
We mirror her smile. I wonder what snorted tobacco is like. I wonder whether Fatimah has ever tried it.
When we walk home that afternoon, I ask my sister if she wants to buy some paan. She makes a gagging sound in the back of her throat and shudders.
At home, our mother cooks daal on our portable gas stove. My sister and I sit on the floor with rolling pins and boards, a bowl of dough between us.
We make perfectly round roti like we’ve been taught, our arms moving with a muscle memory built from months of practice.
‘Why does Mirambi eat paan?’ my sister asks idly, her rolling pin clunking against the board.
‘She’s old,’ I say. ‘It’s not like it matters.’
Mother ‘tsks’ from the stove.
‘It is a filthy habit, and I wish she would stop setting such a poor example for you girls,’ she mutters.
Mother’s filthy habit is complaining about her in-laws.
Mirambi dies early one morning. Fatimah finds her on the front porch, where she had been chewing paan late at night. Her mouth is open in a final yawn, the remaining red gloop still wet and glistening.
At the funeral, her body is wrapped in white, and the plain wooden casket is placed in the front room of the house for the women to grieve over. There is cotton wool stuffed inside her nostrils. No more snorting, I think, and the thought makes me sadder than the stark presence of the dead body in the room.
I slip out of the house quietly, leaving my weeping, wailing relatives to the business of mourning. I walk through the quiet, dusty streets outside until I reach Mirambi’s favourite corner store.
‘Paan, please,’ I order, and watch as the young man behind the counter reaches into a container and pulls out a pre-wrapped leaf, the betel seed encased snugly inside.
I chew it slowly as I walk back to the house, the unfamiliarity of the taste clashing with the well-known smell. It’s sweeter than I thought it would be, and soon becomes a thick clump. I poke a finger into my mouth, and pull it away to see the redness.
Back at the funeral, I wait until prayer time, when heads are bowed and eyes are closed. I lean quietly over the casket, and reaching up to my mouth, pull out the wad of paan.
Pushing her jaw open a tiny bit with one hand, I slip the mushy mixture into Mirambi’s mouth and press her lips shut again.
My fingers are stained and smelly.
I sit on my hands so no one can see.
Image: Ajay Goyal