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Manipur and Assam has always had a complicated relationship. They've gone to war numerous times but yet they've also had a sense of brotherhood and bonhomie amongst them. A particular case which highlights their closeness is the story of a Manipuri princess who was married off to an Assamese prince. Because the princess had to leave her homeland, the king decreed an entire village to immigrate to Assam along with the princess in order to make sure she wouldn't have a culture shock. This migration however wasn't all good news, it had its repercussions which have lasted over generations.
One lasting impact this migration had was the introduction of eating tamul (betel nut) which has become instilled into Manipuri way of life and has had serious consequences. This small nut which is cut into tiny pieces and eaten with layers of plantain leaves has become indispensable and is offered at every social and religious ceremony.
The Assamese people eat the nut raw but Manipuris prefer to soften the nut but dumping it in pits and leaving it there for days. This is known as kom kwa. These nuts are not grown in Manipur as the environment is not conducive so they have to be brought in from Assam. Truckloads of betel nuts arrive at any given time. The capital city of Imphal has several shops which sell either peeled or unpeeled betel nuts along with the plantain leaves and a little bit of lime. Older people seemed hooked on it and chew it continually throughout the day. The people who gain the most out of this habit are the traders and farmers who have thrived.
However, times are changing and there is a new wave coming through on how the nut is being consumed. The ordinary way of chewing it with just the leaves and lime has undergone a change and people now prefer to chew it with sweet laced leaves or with chewing tobacco. This has increased its intake dramatically. This change is credited mainly due to militants getting involved in the tobacco trade. Trucks from Assam who had to ply through NH37 would get stopped by militant groups who would extort large sums of money from them. To counteract this, the trucks would travel with an army convoy but this proved useless as many of their trucks were torched by the militants. The traders then had to find a new route of transport.
Hence, tobacco laced leaves called 'mitha patti' were brought in from Kolkata through freight planes. The demand for Assamese betel nuts and leaves has taken a hit as people now prefer the Kolkata version. Many shops that sold the traditional betel nut have now closed down as people now prefer 'mitha patti paan.' The new 'paan' is costlier but the demand is constantly growing and the business is so lucrative that other items or freight planes are offloaded to accommodate the shipment. The betel nut that accompanies this 'mitha patti' is brought in from Myanmar.
Some activists like Radhesyam feel like the relevance of the Assamese betel nut at social and religious ceremonies has diminished as people do not eat them and they just go to waste. However, people still insist on offering them as a sign of respect to the guests.
The estimated number of people who consume the nut amongst the adult population is about 90% and there seems to be increasing dangers in over consumption especially in terms of health. The rise in cancer cases is directly proportional to increasing 'paan' chewers especially since the use of tobacco laced leaves. This problem does not discriminate among the sexes as both men and women are equally vulnerable and the numbers continue to rise.
There are some families who have however resorted to offering their guests sugar cubes and coconut pieces instead of betel nuts and there is hope that others will also follow suit.
Traders from Assam have been hit but the introduction of this new 'paan', but they are not the only one reeling in the losses. Militants can see their illegal extortion trade dying and are now hell bent on banning 'mitha patti paan.' But this ban has proved fruitless as it has not hampered the trade in any major way or form, and with other 'paan' players coming into the scene mainly from Bihar the business of 'paan' is set to flourish even more.
Source: The Morung express
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