Finally, when everybody is reeking with incongruous odours and trying not to be sick, a silver tray appears with the daintiest little packets of pan supari, each pinned with a clove, and every guest is expected to transfer one to his mouth, for they have been prepared by a Brahmin and cannot hurt the most delicate caste. To an Englishman, however, it is now generally conceded to compromise by keeping the morsel in his hand, as if waiting an opportunity to enjoy it more at his leisure. When you get home your servant craves it of you and contrasts real rajah's pan supari with the stuff which the poor man gets in the bazaar.
The chewing of betel nut requires more apparatus and makes greater demands on a man's time and personal care than the smoking of tobacco or any of the allied vices. To cut the nut neatly an instrument is used like an enormous pair of nutcrackers with a sharp cutting edge. The lime should be made from oyster shells and it must be freshly burned and slaked. Exposure to the air soon spoils it, so a small, air-tight tin box is required to keep it in. Lastly, the betel leaf must be fresh, and in a hot climate green leaves do not keep their freshness without special care.
But the necessity for attending to all these matters no doubt adds greatly to the interest which a chewer of pan supari is able to find in life. Moreover, his taste and wealth have scope for expression in the elegance of his appointments, and by these you may generally judge of a man's rank and means. A well-to-do Mahratta cartman will carry in his waistband a sort of bijou hold-all of coloured cloth, which, when unrolled, displays neat pockets of different forms for the leaves, broken nuts, lime box, spices, etc.; but a native magistrate, who goes about attended by a peon and need not carry his own things, will have a box of polished brass, or even silver, divided into compartments.
One may easily infer that to meet such a universal want there must be a correspondingly great industry, and the cultivation of the betel nut is indeed a great industry, and a most beautiful one. Surely since Adam first began to till the ground in the sweat of his face, his children have found no tillage so Eden-like as this. India has produced no Virgil to take the common charms of a farmer's life and put them into immortal song, so we search her literature in vain to learn how her simple, rustic people feel about these things, and in what we see of their life there is little sign that they feel about them at all; but when the Englishman, wandering, gun in hand, up a steaming valley among forest-clad hills, suddenly finds the path lead him into a betel nut garden, with no wire fence, or locked gate, or inhospitable notice threatening prosecution to trespassers, he feels as if he had entered some region of bliss where the earthly senses are too narrow for the delights that press for entrance to the soul.
In the first place, the areca nut palm is almost, if not altogether, the most graceful of all its graceful tribe. Unlike the coconut, it grows as erect as a flagstaff, and the effect of this is increased by its extreme slenderness, for though it may attain a height of fifty feet, its diameter scarcely exceeds six inches. At the top of the stem there is a sheath of polished green, from the top of which again there issues a tuft of the most ethereal, feathery fronds, diverging and drooping with matchless grace. Under these hang the clusters of reddish-brown nuts.
As the areca nut will not grow except in places that are at once moist and warm, the gardens are generally situated in narrow valleys and dells among hills, with little streams of limpid water rippling past them or through them. The steaming heat of such situations can only be realised by one who has traversed them at noon in the month of May in pursuit of sport or natural history. But the palms grow so close together that their fronds mingle into an almost unbroken roof, through which the sun can scarcely peep, and every air that enters there has the heat charmed out of it, and as it wanders among the broad, aromatic leaves of the betel vines which wreathe the pillars of that fairy hall, it is softened with balmy moisture, and laden with fragrance and scent to woo your senses in perfect tune with the tinkling music of the water and the enchanting beauty of the whole scene.
In a large hut among these shades, with bananas waving their banner leaves over the smooth and well-swept yard in front, where the children play, lives the family that cultivates the garden. They are a sect of Brahmins, but very unbrahminical, unsophisticated, industrious, temperate, kind and hospitable. Other Brahmins despise them and wish to deny them the name, because they have soiled their priestly hands with agriculture. But they return the contempt, and walk in the way of their fathers, a way which leads them among the purest pleasures that this life affords and keeps them from many of its more sordid temptations. Perhaps the picture has its darker shades too. I have not seen them, and why should I look for them?
The betel nut harvest is something of the nature of an acrobatic performance, for the crop is not on the ground, but on poles forty or fifty feet high. This is the manner in which it is gathered. The farmer, attended by his wife, goes out, and slipping a loose loop of rope over his feet to keep them together, so that when he gets the trunk of a tree between them it may fit like a wedge, he clasps one of the trees with his hands and goes up at a surprising rate. He carries with him a long rope, and when he reaches the top, he fastens one end of it to the tree, and throws the other to his wife, who goes to a distance and draws it tight. Then the man breaks off a heavy bunch of ripe nuts, and hitching it on the rope lets it go. It shoots down with such velocity that it would knock his wife down did she not know how to dodge it skilfully and break its force in a bend of the rope.
When all the bunches are on the ground, the man begins to sway his body violently till the tender and supple palm is swinging like a pendulum and almost striking the trees on either side. Watching his opportunity, the man grasps one of these and transfers himself to it with the nimbleness of a monkey. In this way he makes an aerial journey round the garden and avoids the fatigue of climbing up and down every separate tree.
The gathered betel nuts soon find their way to the warehouses of fat Bunias at the coast ports, where they are peeled and prepared and sorted and piled in great heaps according to quality, and finally shipped in pattimars and cotias and coasting steamers, and so disseminated over the length and breadth of the land to be the comforters of poor and rich.
It only remains to say that the betel nut is not used in the East for tooth-powder, though the natives believe that the practice of chewing it saves them from toothache. When they use any dentifrice it is generally charcoal, and their toothbrush is either the forefinger or a fibrous stick chewed at the end till it becomes like a stiff paintbrush. But whatever he may use for the purpose, the Hindu cleans his teeth every morning, and that most thoroughly, before he will allow food to pass his lips, and the whiteness and soundness of his teeth are an object of envy to Englishmen.