One half the world does not know how the other half lives. Noticing a pot of areca nut toothpaste on a chemist's counter, I asked him what the peculiar properties of the areca nut were—in short, what was it good for. He replied that it was an astringent and acted beneficially on the gums, but he had never heard that it was used for any other purpose than the manufacture of an elegant dentifrice. I felt inclined to question him about the camel in order to see whether he would tell me that it was a tropical animal, chiefly noted for the fine quality of its hair, from which artist's brushes were made. Here was a man whose special business it is to know the properties and uses of all drugs and their action on the human system, and he had not the faintest notion that there are nearly 300 millions of His Majesty's subjects, and many millions more beyond his empire, who could scarcely think of life as a thing to be desired if they were obliged to go through it without the areca nut. For the areca nut is the betel nut.
In the Canarese language and the kindred dialects of Malabar it is called by a name which is rendered as adike, or adika, in scientific books, but would stand more chance of being correctly pronounced by the average Englishman if it were spelled uddiky. The coast districts of Canara and Malabar being famed for their betel nuts, the trade name of the article was taken from the languages current there, and was tortured by the Portuguese into areca. Over the greater part of India the natives use the Hindustanee name supari, but by Englishmen it is best known as the betel nut, because it is always found in company with the betel leaf, with which, however, it has no more connection than strawberries have with cream. The one is the leaf of a kind of pepper vine, and the other is the seed, or nut, of a palm. But nature and man have combined to marry them to one another, and it is difficult to think of them separately.
In life the betel vine climbs up the stem of the areca palm, and in death the areca nut is rolled in a shroud of the betel leaf and the two are munched together. Other things are often added to the morsel, such as a clove, a cardamom, or a pinch of tobacco, and a small quantity of fresh lime is indispensable.
What is the precise nature of the consolation derived from the chewing of this mixture it is not easy to say. Outwardly it produces effects which are visible enough, to wit, a most copious flow of saliva, which is dyed deep red by the juice of the nut, so that a betel nut chewer seems to go about spitting blood all the day. As every Hindu is a betel nut chewer, those 943,903 superficial miles of country which make up our Indian Empire must be bespattered to a degree which it dizzies the mind to contemplate. This is one of the difficulties of Indian administration. In large towns and centres of business it is found necessary to fortify the public buildings in various ways. The Custom House in Bombay has the wall painted with dark red ochre to a height of three or four feet from the ground.
But these are the outward results. What is the inwardness of the thing? In a word, why do the people chew betel nut? Surely not that they may spit on our public buildings. That is a chance result, not sought for and not shunned. There is, of course, some deeper reason. Early travellers in India were much exercised about this and used to question the people, from whom they got some curious explanations. One reports, "They say they do it to comfort the heart, nor could live without it." Another says, "It bites in the mouth, accords rheume, cooles the head, strengthens the teeth and is all their phisicke." A Latin writer gets quite eloquent. "Ex ea mansione"—by that chewing—he says, "mire recreantur, et ad labores tolerandos et ad languores discutiendos."
But the remarkable thing is that the betel nut has these effects only on the Hindu constitution. To a European the strong, astringent taste and penetrating odour of the betel nut are alike insufferable, and there is no instance on record, as far as I know, of an Englishman becoming a betel nut chewer. But wherever Hindu blood circulates, not in India only, but all through the islands of the Malay Archipelago, as far as the Philippines, the betel nut is an indispensable ingredient of any life that is worth living. Mohammedanism forbids spirits and Brahminism condemns all things that intoxicate or stupefy, but the betel nut is like the cup that cheers yet not inebriates. No religion speaks disrespectfully of it. It flourishes, blessed by all, and takes its place among the institutions of civilisation. Indeed it is the chief cement of social intercourse in a country where all ordinary conviviality between man and man is almost strangled by the quarantine enforced against ceremonial defilement. Friend offers friend the betel nut box just as Scotsmen offered the snuff-box in the hearty old days that are passing away. And all visits of ceremony, durbars, receptions, leave-takings, and public functions of the like kind are brought to an august close by the distribution of pan supari. To go through this rite without visible repugnance is part of the training of our young Civil Servants. When the interview or ceremony has lasted as long as it was intended to last, there enter, with due pomp, bearers of heavy-scented garlands, woven of jasmine and marigold, and in form like the muffs and boas that ladies wear in winter. These are put upon the necks and wrists of the guests in order of rank. Silver vases and sprinklers follow, containing rose-water and attar of roses. You may ward off the former from your person by offering your handkerchief for it, and you may present the back of your hand for the latter, of which one drop will be applied to your skin with a tiny silver or golden spoon.