CHAPTER 8: KWAI, AND THE EXQUISITE IMPORTANCE THEREOF

Kwai, otherwise known as betel nut, paan, and, occasionally, Khasi lipstick, is as important a part of life in Riwar as rice, water, or air. Typically, kwai consists of anywhere from a fifth (for novice kwai chewers) to a half (expert chewers) of an areca nut wrapped in a betel leaf to which has been added a small application of slaked lime. These three ingredients are then chewed up all together and can be spat out or swallowed. Either way, the mixture of elements produces a mild, though very addictive and easily administered, high. 

You can take it without the lime, which is probably a good idea for first timers. Chewing the lime improperly is a good way to burn the inside of your mouth (and I speak from several experiences). That said, if the high is all one’s after, the lime, which also goes by the less than appetizing name of Calcium Hydroxide, serves to enhance the stimulant effect of the areca nut by allowing the chemical compounds contained therein to be more thoroughly absorbed into the bloodstream.  It’ll also rot your teeth something awful. 

For an outsider, particularly one from a part of the world where chewing paan is unheard of, kwai is very much an acquired taste. The first time I ate it, my judgement was that it tasted like dirt and filled my mouth with nasty red spit. I felt no stimulation. Add in the negative health effects, and I wondered what exactly the appeal was. But then I had it again, and again, and again. There’s no use trying to avoid it in Riwar, and over the course of only a few days, I went rapidly through the stages of politely declining it, to politely accepting it, to accepting it gladly and enjoying it, to acquiring my own stock and offering it to other people.  

The buzz is sometimes compared to caffeine. I’ve seen it claimed that a normal dose of kwai is the equivalent of drinking several cups of coffee, though I’m incredulous. I’ve never felt that way chewing it, then again, I am roughly three times the size of the average kwai consumer in Riwar, so that may have something to do with it. For me, when I feel anything at all after a proper dose, it tends to be a very short-lived, pleasant, warm and fuzzy feeling. Chewing it when engaging in tough physical activity doesn’t exactly make me feel more energetic, but it does make me mind the exertion less … that is, for about thirty seconds. 

It is, however, easy to overdo it. Different nuts have different strengths, and a bad kwai trip is not pleasant.  Once, in a village called Laitiam, I was sitting on the floor with a family, watching, of all things, the 2010 remake of the Karate Kid with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. I was offered some kwai and noticed that the portion included around half of an entire nut. Still, I decided to eat it and just skip the lime, thinking this would counteract the large size of the dose. I chewed up the mix, and for a few seconds didn’t notice anything unusual. But then Jaden Smith went all fuzzy and had little stars around him. The T.V. got more and more blurry until I could not distinguish Smith from Chan. My heartrate skyrocketed, and my skin felt flushed. My eyes became so dilated that I could barely focus on my hand in front of my face, and then I was too dizzy to remain seated upright and collapsed.

The family reacted to my woozily sprawling out on their floor with a mixture of amusement and genuine concern, but once I had explained to them that I thought my kwai had turned on me, their amusement beat out their worry. There was a relatively easy solution to this problem: to eat lots of sugar. One of the laughing, barely distinguishable forms beyond the edge of my vision went into a back room and retrieved a jar of sugar and a spoon. After a few sweet helpings and a couple of minutes, Jaden Smith came back into focus, and I regained my composure, thanking my hosts, and feeling I had truly learned something useful that day. (Then, for my benefit, they switched the channel to CNN International. The topic was Donald Trump and the U.S. election, and I wished I was back blurry-eyed on the floor.)


Selling areca nuts and betel leaves during one market day in Mawsynram

The story of how kwai came to be is a tale one encounters again and again in Riwar. It goes something like this: There once were two childhood friends, U Riewbah, who was rich, and U Baduk, who was poor. Despite their different social standings, the two remained close friends even into adulthood.

But as time wore on, circumstances began to keep them physically apart. U Riewbah inherited land in his village, and when he got married, came to own even more. U Baduk was also married, which meant, as per the matrilineal customs of the land, that he had to move to his wife’s village. He also took on more and more responsibilities as he grew older, including looking after his parents and tending to crops in the jungle in order to feed and support his family. 

Over the years, U Baduk would sometimes travel back to his home village, whereupon U Riewbah would invite his old friend into his house. Because of his wealth, U Riewbah was able to throw great feasts in U Baduk’s honor, but, due to his many responsibilities, was never able to travel to U Baduk’s village so that his friend could return the favor. U Baduk’s neighbors now began to suspect that he had made up his friendship with U Riewbah to brag, and began to tease him about it, and ask him why his rich friend had never come to visit. 

U Riewbah regretted not having come before, and finally agreed to visit, so U Baduk went back home to his wife and asked her to prepare a great meal. At first, his wife was happy to hear that U Riewbah would be coming to their house. But then she realized that she didn’t have any provisions. 

‘No problem,’ thought U Baduk. They could simply borrow some food from their neighbors. 

U Baduk’s wife then went from house to house in the village to ask for food, but none of their neighbors were willing to part with any. When she came back home and gave U Baduk the news, he was humiliated. Feeling both embarrassed that he would not be able to serve his friend a proper meal, and also distraught at having such lousy neighbors, he took out a knife and killed himself. Shocked and consumed with grief his wife also committed suicide with the same knife. Then a robber came by, and seeing that nobody was moving inside the house, assumed the inhabitants were asleep. He snuck inside and warmed himself by the fire, then he slowly drifted off into unconsciousness.

The next morning, the robber awoke with a shock at the realization that the people in the house were not sleeping, but dead. He now feared that the villagers would suspect that he was the one who killed the couple, given that he was well-known as a liar and a scoundrel. To avoid having the villagers subject him to their own justice, he too took the same knife and committed suicide.  

In time, U Baduk’s neighbors noticed that his house was unusually quiet that morning. When they went to investigate, they found the bodies inside, and being filled with shame at having refused U Baduk’s wife food the night before, remarked at the fact that three people had died simply because U Baduk was too poor to properly entertain his rich friend.

Later, U Riewbah, fulfilling his promise, came to call on his friend. Seeing what had transpired, he fell to the ground and sobbed for many hours. Then he began to pray. He asked God to provide some way for the poor to entertain those who visited them without making themselves even poorer. And so God, then and there, caused three new plants, never before seen in the world, to spring up where the bodies had once lain. These were the areca palm, the betel leaf, and the tobacco plant, all of which could be easily served and enjoyed by the rich and the poor alike. 


Areca palms over Nongsteng village

Virtually any time somebody comes to visit in Meghalaya there is an obligatory serving of kwai (or two, or three, or four, or five). While travelling the region, the standard kwai kit becomes a common sight. This consists of an open topped wooden box containing a sufficiency of areca nuts and betel leaves, plus a standard collection of kwai paraphernalia. This usually includes one or two wooden tubes a few inches in diameter which are stuffed with green betel leaves, along with a small metal or plastic container of lime, and a cutting implement, which can either be a long-bladed jungle dao, or a small, crude, wooden-handled folding knife. 

 Areca nuts (scientifically, areca fruit, though nobody calls them that) grow encased in a fibrous husk. To prepare kwai, this husk must first be stripped away to expose the hard, red, kernel inside, and kwai boxes will usually have several days’ accumulation of furry husk-bits in the bottoms of them. The kernel will then be divided using the cutting implement. This is done by grasping both the knife and the nut in the palm of one’s hand, the sharp edge of the blade directed into the center of the nut. The nut and the blade are then firmly squeezed together, pressing the sharp side of the blade into the nut and breaking it in two, the halves then being further divided using the same technique. Every Riwar villager is an expert in this method of dividing areca nuts, and even many of the kids and old women have extraordinarily strong, calloused, rock-like hands. 

Some War Khasis chew kwai non-stop. I think a perfectly normal daily intake might be something like 20 or 30 doses. I know that I have personally had at least ten in a single day (which I don’t recommend).

Given the vast quantities consumed, the economies of entire villages, and so the lives of many a villager, revolve largely around kwai cultivation. Vast tracts of hill slopes are set aside for the growing of areca palms and little else. Though they are a lucrative crop, they’re also labor-intensive, and need lots of water to thrive.

While in the spring and during the monsoon precipitation in the region is, if anything, too plentiful, just the opposite is true throughout the rest of the year, which means that in many places water must be somehow brought to the palms. This is complicated by the fact that most kwai producing Riwar villages don’t have access to much flat, easily-irrigated, land, and so are forced to grow the palms on sloping, stony, ground, where water runs off immediately.   

The traditional solution to this problem is to build a complex network of above-ground irrigation channels with hollowed out areca palm trunks, sticks, various types of bamboo, and the occasional leaf or small bit of grass. These channels will begin at the nearest stream, but then extend for hundreds of meters throughout the Areca plantation, the water being ingeniously directed in every direction but up.

The primary flow of the network is captured by the larger palm trunks, which, arranged end to end, are usually propped up a foot or two in the air by sticks which have been tied to the trunks with thin but sturdy strips of bamboo. In order to irrigate the whole plantation, water from this single channel must still be diverted to many points across the slope, and in different directions. This is achieved by creating natural interchanges, usually, again, out of thin bamboo strips. These are placed at an angle to the main flow, the interchange carrying off a smaller stream into another channel, either made from bamboo or more Areca trunks, which can then be guided in the opposite direction from the initial channel and to wherever the water is most needed.

A major channel may have dozens of interchanges, while the streams of the secondary channels can also be sub-divided. In this feat of tribal hydro-engineering, using only the materials the jungle itself provides, the water of a single narrow stream may be distributed over much of the surface area of a mountain.  

Khasi betel nut cultivation on a jungle slope

The sight of Khasis with mouths dyed a rather gruesome shade of red from chewing the mild stimulant is so common in Meghalaya that one can almost forget that this is not the normal state of affairs in other parts of the world. If one happens to encounter a person in Riwar who does not partake, the cultural importance of the drug will manifest itself in lengthy conversations about why the individual abstains (the reasons, which strike me as good ones, are usually tooth decay and oral cancer). 

A story one often encounters, usually told by locals with a sort of defiant pride, is that when the British first saw the red stained lips of proper Khasi kwai fiends, they assumed they had arrived in a country of cannibals. I suspect it’s not true; I’m sure the Brits had plenty of experience with paan-chewers in other parts of the world. However, I have seen foreign tourists who were so utterly shocked and mystified by the deep red lips of jungle kwai eaters that they might as well have thought they were in the presence of man-eating tribals. 

A Russian trekker was once walking through a remote village in Katarshnong. When an old Khasi lady with blood red kwai-lips and few teeth came up to invite her for tea, the Russian declined simply on the basis of the old woman’s mouth. The lady just looked too much like she had been eating people, and might like a taste of foreigner. I’m sure the trekker was well-aware that the woman posed no real threat, but she just couldn’t shake the image of the old kwai fiend cooking a toned white trekker leg over a fire and doling out bits of Phareng to her extended family to have over rice. The old lady must have found the whole incident mighty peculiar.

Another old chestnut is the story of the person (it can be a man or a woman) who is either A: so hopelessly addicted to kwai that they’ve dispensed with the rest of their diet and now subsist entirely on nut and leaf, or, B: so hopelessly addicted to kwai that they ingest it in their sleep. It’s said of the sleep eaters that they can go through all the stages of kwai preparation several times a night without ever gaining consciousness. Their muscle memory in the area of areca nut unhusking and dividing is so well developed that they can perform all the relevant functions without thinking, or even seeing. Of course, A and B can easily be the same person, and so the individual might very well be in a perpetual state of kwai preparation and consumption.  

Much the same can be said for Riwar as a whole. 

Go here to read the rest of The Green Unknown

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Big bag of fresh areca nuts. This was a gift, and a kind one at that, though one I couldn’t take home with me. I wound up gifting these to a tea shop owner in Sohra

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