Fifteen Minutes Muchhadji Has Achieved the Bombay Dream—I’m Still Working on It
Most paanwalas sell loose cigarettes. I don’t smoke often, but when I do, I buy one or two. I never buy them from Muchhad.
I don’t remember my first interaction with Muchhadji. That’s not to say it was dull. He seems such a natural fit in my life in Bombay that I’ve had the comfort of taking his presence for granted ever since I’ve known him.
I live in a tiny studio apartment above Muchhadji’s paan shop. Paan is a quintessentially South Asian mouth freshener. It contains areca nut, sweets and spices, and, on occasion, tobacco—all wrapped neatly in a betel leaf. Sometimes the preparations are simple, with coconut and slaked lime, better known as chuna. Sometimes they’re over-the-top, in flames or frozen.
Here, though, Muchhadji only sells the real, no-frills stuff. The shop is aptly named “ Muchhad Paanwala”—which, literally translated from Hindi, means “mustachioed paan fellow.” The name was bestowed on him by some school children when he had just started selling paan.
True to his name, Muchhadji has a classic Indian mustache: the walrus-type that curls proudly upwards at each end. This man with the mustache is one Jaishankar Tiwari. Since I’ve known him, I’ve always called him “Muchhadji”—mustached sir. It’s one of those things that don’t translate well, but it’s respectful. And as intimidating as he seemed to me at first, he’s anything but.
“The mustache,” he tells me, smiling and revealing a set of dentures, “is the only real job requirement.”
He bursts into higher-pitched laughter than I expected from a man as burly as he, and I smile. He is seated in an ergonomic office chair. His shop looks onto a main road, where outdated Leyland buses drum by and pedestrian traffic is always heavy. There’s a CCTV camera in one corner of the three-by-eight foot store, plus an in-wall single-door commercial fridge. There’s a paan counter between us. He’s barefoot; his sandals are at the base of the stairs leading to his elevated shop.
Whenever he sells cold drinks from the fridge, he either leans over the counter to stretch and reach them or, if they’re high, he has to walk down the two steps, put on his sandals, climb onto the store’s level and balance to find what a customer’s looking for. The latter is always the case when I go to him for a Red Bull and he feels the cans to find me the coldest one.
A man approaches the shop and Muchhadji gets to work. “Meetha?” he asks, making sure the man wants sweet paan. The man smiles and looks over at me. Muchhadji tells me, “He’s been coming to me for years.”
The man nods. “At least five or six,” he says, and looks at my camera.
“I’m interviewing Muchhadji,” I offer.
He presses his lips together in a smile and looks back at Muchhadji, who hands the man his paan. Money is exchanged, and the man leaves.
Making paan is an underrated craft. Being a paanwala is like being part-people person and part-therapist; lots of heartbroken young men seek out paan or cigarettes on drunken nights out. When I usually see Muchhadji, he spends his time people-watching, sipping chai, and, rarely, checking his phone. He’s always at his counter, talking to customers and passersby, and twirling his mustache. His fingernails are always paan-stained, red. My own are usually dotted with at least a little ink, most days, from using a fountain pen that belonged to my grandfather. Perhaps being a paanwala isn’t that different from being a writer.
When I go to him for a Red Bull, he feels the cans to find me the coldest one.
“As I was saying,” Muchhadji turns to me and continues, “I’ve been lucky.”
Today, Muchhadji’s luck has made him a millionaire, I gather. In our conversation so far, I’ve worked out that he has at least three flats, one of which is on the affluent Nepean Sea Road, which he leaves to families in need along with a stipend. “God’s been kind to me,” he believes.
When he started this paan shop, he spent at least a few nights a week sleeping on the sidewalk with his sandals tucked underneath his head as an anti-theft pillow. “There was a man who lived here, down that way,” he points, “who used to give me a glass of fresh milk every day.” Before I could ask, he answers: “I was a watchman then—I’m talking of ’77.”
A watchman, or security guard, is a catchall for a doorman in these parts. They do everything: valeting cars, collecting packages, watching over the people coming in and out of the building, ushering away Hare Rama Hare Krishna types and beggar kids looking for food and money.
Muchhadji says, “The man was incredibly generous.”
A shy boy in a red shirt walks by the shop, hands Muchhadji a cleanly folded five-hundred rupee note, and says “thank you” with his head down. He doesn’t look at me, and walks on, away from the shop in his quiet manner.
“Just some money he’d borrowed,” Muchhadji explains. “Anyway, it got to the point where I felt like I had to do this. So I asked my father for five-hundred rupees.”
A pair of saree-clad women come to the shop asking for matches.
Until now, Muchhadji and I have had just a few handfuls of interactions. Always the same type: The polite hellos and how-is-it-goings. When I’d come home late from my ad agency job and walk past his shop, he’d shoo the men away to make space for me to pass and we’d nod and smile without saying, ‘Goodnight.’
When I eventually quit my job to freelance, I’d head to his shop for an eight-o’clock Red Bull at least once a week. And when my father was in town, we learned that he and the paanwala come from neighboring towns in Uttar Pradesh.
He said to my father, “She’s a diligent girl, your daughter. She keeps her head down and does her work.” Which is when it occurred to me, that all our interactions had been polite and quick.
In truth, he’d have seen me leave for work, come and go from the airport, run to meetings, and meet friends and dates. When I was away for a fortnight and went back to him to buy a Red Bull, he asked how my time away had been. And when I went to buy paan from him, he asked how my father was—the only person in our family who enjoys the stuff.
But our relationship borders on ‘friendly-acquaintance.’ For instance, a while ago, I was walking past his shop to catch a cab and he asked me if I wanted some bananas (weird, but it was a friendly thing).
“Farm-fresh,” he said, handing me one. I declined; I was headed to a dinner.
The saree-clad women shake their heads. As he proceeds to take out more boxes of matches, they say, “No, no, no, we’re looking for the ones with the wax tips.”.
“Oh!” he says, “I don’t have those. Just these ones.”
They walk away, thanking him, and he continues. “But five-hundred rupees was a lot of money in those days, and my father didn’t have money to spare.” Like all families of that generation, Muchhadji, who hails from Tiwaripur, outside Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, has at least four siblings.
I don’t press him for information on his siblings. I know his relationship with at least one brother is a sore point. Before Muchhadji took on this current shop, he was set up half a block away in a shop he shared with his brother. He and his brother had a huge spat some years ago—which I later came to learn was a lot more violent than I imagined—and the original shop was divided into two. One half was called “Tiwari” and the other retained the Muchhad name—Jaishankar’s half. The spot where he currently sits is an expansion of the original shop.
“My father was supportive of the idea, though.” Initially, he sounds like he’s defending his dad, but then adds, “All my father said to me was, if you do this, do it wholeheartedly and think of your family, your brothers. And I told my father, I said, ‘Papa, I’ve always given most of my salary to you and Ma, and that’s not about to change.’”
I was walking past his shop to catch a cab and he asked me if I wanted some bananas (weird, but it was a friendly thing).
Family means a lot to people here in India. Regardless of whether you share an emotional bond with your kin, you’re expected to go above and beyond to help them when you can. Muchhadji, however, tells me he does it because he can, not because he should. He eventually worked up the nerve to ask the man who’d been giving him milk if he’d be able to borrow the money.
“The man was outraged and asked how I dared ask for money after I’d been given milk, but the man’s wife was having none of it! She said, ‘How dare you bring the milk into this? You do that because you can! Give him the money or else book me a train ticket home.’”
Muchhadji raises his eyebrows, a smile curls under his mustache. “She was a khandani lady, you see. So I took the money, bought a tray and supplies and started selling paan.”
At the end of the month, he’d made a thousand rupees, and paid off the loan. Muchhadji recalls, “They weren’t expecting to get the money back, but I wanted to thank them for doing something nice.”
Since then, he says, the profits have been increasing exponentially. “It’s taken a lot of work,” he stresses, “and the shop’s changed quite a bit in recent years. The younger generation all seem to favor shisha tobacco and cigarettes, but it’s fine.”
My ears burn when he says “cigarettes.” In India, most paanwalas will sell loose cigarettes. I don’t smoke often, but when I do, I buy one or two. But I never buy them from Muchhad. It’s a bizarre practice, but on evenings when I feel like a smoke, I walk past his shop, do the quick smile-hello-how-are-you-I’m-well, and then walk to another paanwala around the corner (out of his line of sight).
I don’t fully understand why I do this: My parents know I smoke, so it’s not that. Yet when Muchhadji was away to his hometown a month ago, with his son manning the shop, I stopped by once after a night out and bought a cigarette.
Perhaps I’m intimidated by the very conservative Indian idea he (probably) has of ‘good’ women not being smokers. Or perhaps that I seem a certain way to him—a non-smoking hard-worker who is polite and sincere—and I like that version of myself. I can’t say.
Behind me, rush hour traffic is starting. The usually busy road—always loud, since this is India, where roads are rarely quiet—is awash with the sound of annoyed horns.
I’m about to thank him and head home when he says, “Ask me anything. I’ll answer it truthfully.”
I think about asking him about the fight with his brother, but something in me can’t. I see him as someone who has lived and earned and won the so-called ‘Bombay Dream’—a more grueling, less rewarding version of the ‘American Dream,’ some would argue—and my own version of this dream has yet to be realized.
At sixty-two, Muchhadji says he’s fulfilled, ready to retire, and hand over the keys to his son. “I’ve done a lot, I’ve seen a lot,” he says. “And now, I just want to relax.”
“If I can offer you one piece of advice, beti,” he says, “it’s to do whatever you do whole-heartedly and never cross people. It takes less than nothing to be a good person, and it’s good for you too.”
I thank him. “I’ll see you,” I say.
As I walk back upstairs to my apartment, a thought strikes me: I never gave him my name, or formally took his either. I got his name after googling him before our interview. I told him I’d get him a copy of this piece when it runs—maybe he’ll pick up my name then?