Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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Boy of the Betel Leaf

Sometimes, life can be too perfect for one’s taste. I am successful in every practical definition of the word; chancellor of a major university and head honcho at every professional gathering. I am surrounded by loved ones at home: my wife, our children, and grandchildren. My house is a temple for South Asian immigrants; the spot of religious congregations and cultural gatherings. My office is a melting pot for scholars; the site of intellectual debate and academic dwellings. I am respected and revered, yet at times I feel incomplete. I feel awkward in my business suit, my air-conditioned Lexus, my luxurious cabin. I gaze out the pane of my large glass window and seek the reflection of a boy whose reality was once distant from his present. I look for that same lad, confused and clueless in a life he never thought he would live. I am crestfallen when I no longer see his innocent eyes or mirror his desire to believe the unbelievable.

When I am lonesome, I sneak out of my million-dollar mansion along the hills of Austin and drive to the nearby lake; the marshy meadow becomes a much-needed oasis. I settle myself near the lagoon and rest upon the delicate grass under the shade of a weeping willow. Ready to shade me in the afternoon heat, the willow reminds me of my mother I bid adieu to decades ago. I feel serene as I reunite with nature; my hands begin to run across the betel leaves of a budding plant. I become a thirteen-year-old again and mischievously pluck off a leaf. The waxy texture tickles my palm. As the willow swings, the sunrays tease the leaf and it shines back and forth like a glossy photograph full of memories from a life gone by. Full of nostalgia, I observe it closely.

I study the innumerable veins that intertwine the betel leaf, like the lines of a human palm. I notice my own right palm, the lines now filled with cracks of aging. I cannot decipher one line from the other; they were never clear to begin with in fact. I had shown them to a wise palmist as a child, who had deemed my destiny to be as unclear as the lines; a nonexistent future destined for darkness. His words had left me in oblivion.

I instead had to discover my fate amongst the lines of a betel leaf by placing it upon my palm and letting it dictate my route. The veins of the leaf I held as a thirteen-year-old were sharp and defined. Within them, I sought fortune and opportunity, facets I could never find in the curves of my own palm. The veins of the leaf I hold today are as clear as those of the leaf I grasped sixty years ago. I run my fingers along the delicate lines, reliving my journey as a wanderer across a fate imprinted upon a greenish particle. The wind blows through my receding hair and drops of the lake splash upon my fatigued eyes. I am transported back to my teenage self, seven seas away in a world I will never return to.


“Madhav! You will burn your feet if you keep running down those stairs!” Maa yelled, as she threw my father’s detergent-layered dhoti against the riverbank to rid it of its dirt. I was barefoot and it was noon; the sun was at its peak and the concrete steps were roasting in heat. I didn’t have slippers; we couldn’t afford them. Before I headed home, I had to show Maa something from school; a few foot blisters would not tamper with my excitement. Without a bag on my back, I darted down the toasty wedges clutching my blackish writing slate, hands chalky from hours of scribbling. The cheap slate was a family heirloom; it belonged to a cousin who quit school years ago. Courtesy him, I had something to scrawl upon; purchasing notebooks was out of the question.

As I hurriedly descended the steps of the waterbed, I could only see Maa in a fizz of translucence, frothy bubbles of all sizes encircling her. In the waves of the summer heat I darted toward the moist bubbles floating into the waterless air. In their resplendent colors, I caught a clearer glimpse of my effervescent Maa. She was diligently washing buckets full of clothes alongside other impoverished housewives. My father liked his dhoti spotless; scrubbing it was far from easy. Every morning, she would carefully hand him the pristine fifteen-foot-long cotton cloth that he would then wrap around his legs and tie into a knot at his waist. He would return home every evening in a pitiful mess. The whiteness of his dhoti would be stained with cigarette butts, tobacco stains, and a pink jelly made of rose petals, all courtesy his professional endeavors.

My trips from school to home would be incomplete without visiting Maa while she slaved away along the Ganges; the purest form of water for Hindus.

Growing up on the shores of the Ganges, I was inducted to notions of purity and salvation early on. I was bred with the belief that bathing in the river would rid me of sins and bad omens; I could seek a blissful afterlife if I regularly worshiped the river and dipped myself in it. As a child, I had watched my father spread the ashes of my deceased grandfather into the stream, praying for idyllic salvation. I had witnessed my uncle cleanse himself in the river, begging for mercy for his business malpractices. I had observed pundits conduct rituals at dusk and dawn on the watercourse, praying for the betterment of the dead and despondent.

I scurried to Maa and gave her a giant hug as I got enveloped by a foamy fest of bubbly whites. She was too occupied to pay heed.

“I finally solved this problem, Maa!” I squealed as I tried to show her an algorithm I had tackled on my four by six slate.

“That’s nice!” she said apathetically, not realizing that splashes from her laundry were washing away the chalky marks of my mathematical conquest.

I couldn’t blame her; she had more important things to worry about. When daily survival is a concern, a minute school achievement holds little precedence. Life was incredibly tough for Maa. There were three boys and two girls in the household, and a sixth child was on its way. In her eighth month of pregnancy, she was washing clothes in broiling temperatures and inhaling poisonous fumes of an age-old charcoal stove. My father, or Bapu, as I lovingly called him, earned meagerly as a paan vendor.

Bapu’s paan shop was a humble little outlet on the riverbank; paan had always been a popular mouth freshener in our area. It was considered inappropriate for women to loiter around our not-so-upscale paan parlor, where unruly men schmoozed over mouthfuls of cigarettes and alcohol. Our shop was cramped yet fully stocked with whatever Bapu needed for his confections. Having mastered the process, he could serve multiple customers in minutes. He would pull out a betel leaf from a water-filled bucket of leaves and lay it on a wooden slab. He would layer the leaf with a pinkish jelly made of rose petals; a glue-like, slaked lime paste; a brownish extract of acacia trees, coconut flakes, an areca nut, and a bit of tobacco. Finally, he would fold the edges of the leaf to bundle the ingredients and would trade it for a handful of coins.

The adults around me claimed that paan refreshed them, especially after long days of work. I somehow felt otherwise. For years I saw the same men visit repeatedly to have their daily servings, making it seem more of an addiction; a concoction that gave the working-class momentary euphoria from their otherwise impecunious lives. I would watch the men idle away their time at Bapu’s parlor. They would often leave imprints of their gossip sessions on the surrounding gravel in the form of inerasable, bright red spit stains.

At thirteen, I was officially put to work. Though I had been helping at the shop from an early age, I had never sat on Bapu’s trademark stool, an imbalanced furniture piece with one of its four legs broken. As his eldest son and the rising family patriarch, he wanted me to immerse myself fully. Learning the business of paan selling meant giving up school altogether. I had been a bright student; my thirst for knowledge had kept me going even under the sweltering sun or torrential monsoon.

Bapu’s word, however, was always the last one; I would no longer visit the classroom. There was no space for negotiation; there was no one to reason with him anyway. There wasn’t a single high school graduate even in the farthest branches of our family tree. No one understood the value of education. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand it myself. I didn’t have a purpose in life or a dream to fuel a purpose. They say a dream is the cheapest asset a person can own; I couldn’t even afford that. I didn’t know what it meant to dream, to have ambition beyond my one-room home and Bapu’s rickety shop.

I had been dragged to the local public school as a five-year-old by my grandfather, who felt that basic reading, writing, and arithmetic were required to sell paan with agility. The school had been severely dilapidated. The benches were torn away and students sat on the concrete floor. The fans were broken; we depended on limited airflow from the tiny window to cool the class of fifty kids. My classmates belonged to the same strata as myself: children of housemaids, taxi drivers, vegetable vendors, and construction workers. None of us came from families that encouraged education; if we were to achieve something, the inspiration had to come from another source.

I discovered my stimulus in Abdul Sir, my seventh-grade math teacher. He was quite different from the rest of us. He did not attend temple or wear a reddish dot on his forehead. He had a neat, manicured beard, and wore an off-white cap five times a day while praying. He ate nonvegetarian food and abstained from alcohol. He spoke impeccable Urdu and had an Islamic courtesy. On Eid, he would bring us bowls of vermicelli pudding; a rare treat for kids like us.

Despite these differences, he was like us in most other ways. He loved the same Hindi film music, cooling weather, and Sunday holidays. Come to think of it, he was only different by demarcations of religious streaks. It was in him that I discovered my much-needed motivation. He would keep me in school for hours after the dismissal bell to ensure I performed my best. Though I did not have the capacity to dream of anything for myself, his persistence kept enhancing me. I worked through some incredibly difficult math problems in a flimsy textbook I shared with two classmates.

“You must go far beyond your limits!” he would keep reminding me. Those words would echo through me recurrently.

When I was tied down to the shop, Abdul Sir made several futile attempts to talk Bapu out of the decision he deemed catastrophic to my future. Bapu would not have it though. He explained his plight to Abdul Sir: the burden of a soon-to-be seven-child family and the fears of an uncertain future. The already measly household income was shrinking; my brothers were too young to work, and it was blasphemous to let daughters earn. By stationing me at the shop, Bapu could start selling vegetables on a rented cart.

Abdul Sir reasoned; he explained the importance of a robust education, of the opportunities it could bring to our family. The need of the hour was more pivotal, though. Bapu sat me down to talk sense into me. As a growing man, I understood that duty had to take precedence. I myself went to a dismayed Abdul Sir and turned in my school withdrawal papers. He was hurt that the future of one of his brightest students had been throttled by unwarranted circumstances. I was hurt too; not because I was signing my life away to selling paan, but because I had disappointed Abdul Sir for the first time.

A few days into the working world, I felt the heat rise above its normal temperature. The sun had crowned above our heads, grilling us like bread loaves in an English bakery. Courtesy the unbearable weather, business was down. Bapu grabbed my hand and raced me to the riverbed. We folded our hands in respect to the holy water and jumped in for a dip. After venturing through the newly formed ripples, he climbed onto the bank while I took a few moments to bask in the watery surface. Drying himself with the loose end of his dhoti, Bapu uttered the few words of advice he never forgot to impart.

“Always bathe yourself in the Ganges, Madhav; you will get to experience a beautiful afterlife!”

As I waded through the river, Abdul Sir’s words echoed through me again.

“You must go far beyond your limits!”

Filled with naivety, I looked up at Bapu and mustered the courage to question him for the first time.

“Bapu, we wash ourselves in the Ganges to experience a beautiful afterlife. But what if we want to experience a beautiful life before we die?”

He gaped at me; he did not have an answer.

Neither did I, or so I thought in the moment.

With Bapu engrossed in his new veggie business, I started managing the shop alone. I felt as though I had suddenly transformed into an adult, much like the heroes I idolized in Hindi movies. One of Bapu’s regulars, Mr. Sharma, was not the most encouraging of customers. I had still been trying to master the acquired talent of paan-making. Mr. Sharma never missed an opportunity to belittle the paan I handed to him, complaining of its far-from-perfect measure of ingredients.

“Learn how to make paan correctly, boy. Remember, a paan vendor’s son always becomes a paan vendor!”

Mr. Sharma’s words would make me cringe. As my ability to knit a perfectly folded paan together improved over the days, he would continue to spit the same insensitive sentence at me. I became habitual to hearing his taunts every night before I closed the shop.

“A paan vendor’s son always becomes a paan vendor!”

My school days were now far behind; I had not heard from Abdul Sir in weeks. I feared he may have given up on me. Bapu asked me to hand the chalk slate over to my baby brother who was stepping into kindergarten. I happily passed it on, secretly praying he would stay in school longer than I had. The only remainder I had of my scholastic pursuit was the tattered seventh-grade textbook I once shared with two classmates. They had also dropped out; they were never motivated to begin with, and my decision only encouraged them. There were no takers for the book, so I used it as a paperweight in the shop to hold the betel leaves down.

At times, I would flip through the textbook’s number-filled pages. Deep down, I wanted to pass seventh grade; to be addressed as an eighth grader. This could only happen if I aced the material in the book. Math required resources that were rather difficult to obtain: a writing utensil and a few sheets of paper. I had neither.

One evening, Mr. Sharma made a quick stop for his usual paan. I handed over his refreshment, expecting to receive the same grumbling look and caustic remark about my future. To my surprise, he complimented me this time.

“Looks like you have almost matched your father’s paan!” he praised.

Mr. Sharma took a black fountain pen from his pocket and rewarded me with it. As he began to leave, he paused for a second. He turned back and looked me in the eye.

“Don’t let this get to your head. A paan vendor’s son always becomes a paan vendor!”

His words aside, Mr. Sharma had shown me a ray of light by handing me a pen; the only struggle now was to find a writing pad. I started closing the shop for the day, wiping down the wooden slab and shutting the lids of the metal ingredient cans. I stored the fresh paan leaves in a bucket of water and bundled the rotten leaves to toss into the river.

Something struck me in the moment.

I took a rotten leaf that was now useless to the shop in my hand. I quickly pulled the pen from my pocket and scribbled something on it. I encircled the pen in two giant loops and drew an eight. The eight represented eighth grade, a destination I was so close yet so far from. I locked my eyes with the eight and kept staring at it in wonderment. I slowly began to rotate the leaf and realized the eight now looked like ∞. Abdul Sir had taught us that infinity meant limitless; to cross one’s limits to achieve something beyond one’s reach. I firmly pressed my thumb upon the ∞ and noticed it did not smudge. The waxy surface of the leaf had welcomed the ink. I now had both a pen and a pad.

In the weeks that followed, I hurriedly finished the problems in the textbook during off hours of business. If a customer discovered me secretly doing schoolwork and the news reached Bapu, I would have been in trouble. I would have been scolded for splitting my priorities, for not focusing on earning money wholeheartedly. I stealthily cracked all sorts of numerical questions on the rotten paan leaves I collected; little did I know I was rewriting my fate in the process. I knew that finishing the problems would not get me promoted to eighth grade without being enrolled in school. But I knew this would get me Abdul Sir’s approval; this would have been enough to make me feel worthy of myself.

Amidst paan crafting, shop cleaning, and money counting, I managed to finish the book cover to cover. I compiled my rotten leaves together, many of which had now become unreadable. I had to show them to Abdul Sir to prove I was still the same student he had once instilled faith in. I bundled the leaves in a newspaper tied with a flimsy jute rope to take to his house.

Tensions had been brewing between the Hindu and Muslim communities in our otherwise secular town for a few days. A Hindu had accused a Muslim of slaughtering a cow to eat its beef, an accusation that had yet to be validated. It led to a frenzy, causing extremists from both sides to dive into a rampage of plundering homes, raping women, and burning neighborhoods. The chaos had reached quite close to my own area. A friend of mine came hurrying to the shop.

“Madhav! Close the shop right now!” he demanded. “The riots are out of hand and a Muslim could burn this down. Get out of here!”

I frantically locked the shop, storing any spare change in my pockets. I carefully guarded the bundle of leaves in my arms. Riot or no riot, I was determined to meet Abdul Sir today. His house was not far from mine. It was a Sunday, and with school being closed, he would be at home. I quickly ventured through the streets that led to my cramped neighborhood, running past horrifying visuals. I saw extremists of both religions chanting the names of their respective gods while murdering each other in cold blood on the streets. With my tiny, brawny frame, I ducked under broken shambles and scurried my way toward the lane where Abdul Sir lived. I made it to his residence, grateful at having bypassed the religious turmoil.

As I entered his home clutching my bundle, I suddenly felt immobilized. The rope loosened from my hands and the leaves fell to the floor, descending upon the rocky earth beneath me. I had lost my grip; my body was no longer in my control. The only sense that functioned in that moment was that of sight, which fashioned an unimaginable vision. In front of my nascent eyes, I saw Abdul Sir lying in a coffin, looking tranquil as ever. There was wailing and yelling, screaming and crying around me. Yet I was fixated on the serenity of his face, on the composure of his stature. I was glued to the wisdom of his eyes, which, though shut, shined with limitless knowledge.

Senseless, I knelt to pick up the leaves, as though picking up scattered pieces of my life. Balancing them in my now clenched fists, I turned around from Abdul Sir and walked back to the dangerous lanes where illiteracy and ignorance were plaguing hundreds of violent young men. I paced like a zombie toward a future I had no understanding of. As I treaded along the destructed alleys, I came across a giant fire, ablaze with the belongings of innocent Hindus and Muslims. I glared at it, the fumes engulfing me into a life of penury and prejudice.

“A paan vendor’s son always becomes a paan vendor!” Mr. Sharma’s words raced through me again.

The coffin that sealed Abdul Sir’s memories sealed the ambition he once gave me. The nail that bolted his casket now bolted me into my boundaries. The muddy earth that would conceal his remains had now concealed my aspirations. There was no longer reason to persevere or dream; everything had been finished in a matter of seconds. I raised my arms, determined to let go of everything I had worked for. In my journey from coffin to combustion, I crossed that boundary separating boyhood and manhood. Muslims bury their dead in the darkness of coffins; Hindus bury their dead in the darkness of ashes. My prospects would now witness the same fate as Abdul Sir. I would toss the leaves into the raging fire. The heat would envelope my future and the smoke would submerge my fate.

I opened my fists into the smoky air, letting go of all remnants of my previous life. I watched the greenish leaves turn gray as charcoal, the ink upon them melting like the blood of a dying man. In the holocaust of dreams, a boy transformed into a man, hardened by an inferno he would never escape; a childhood had been charred.

One leaf remained in my hand. The more I tried to get rid of it, the more it refused to leave me. The harder I tried to toss it, the fiercer it fought to stay back. The waxy sheet melted in my palm; its veins surfacing over my own unpredictable lines. I realized in the moment that it would not let go of me so easily; by a twist of fate we were going to become one. I glanced at the leaf to see which math problem had been stubborn enough to escape its impending fate of embers. But all I saw instead was a beautifully looped ∞; the first leaf I had ever scribbled upon. The ∞ was refusing to let go of me, permeating me with its limitlessness instead.

“You must go far beyond your limits!” I heard Abdul Sir say again.

In that fraction, everything would change; the phoenix would rise from its ashes.

I switched my route and marched to the school where I once studied. My limits were not going to be those I had set for myself, within the four walls of Bapu’s shop. No, a paan vendor’s son would not become a paan vendor. He would do whatever it took to soar beyond the boundaries that had been drawn for him at birth.

I had to do this.

For myself.

For that paan vendor, who never had the opportunity to dream for his son.

For Abdul Sir.


A decade later, I stood in front of a large congregation on a massive stage. With a podium in front of me, I was addressing a thousand students. It was a spectacular visual; bright young men and women, draped in shiny black gowns, adorned in crisp square hats with silky tassels hanging off them. A mammoth banner with the words “Cornell University, Class of 1965” shined proudly in front of me; my professors sitting astutely behind me. I had never been a public speaker; being selected had been more than an honor. I was told to just speak from my heart. I had no clue how to dress up words or decorate them with eloquence the way public speakers did.

“Infinity!” I began.

“Infinity is a strange phenomenon. It pushes you beyond your limits, to a destination where you think you may never go. It forces you to dream the impossible; imagine the unimaginable. It clips your shackles and equips you with wings to explore everything aside of what destiny has to offer.

A wholehearted belief in infinity transformed the life of a teenage boy. The son of a paan vendor had his future engraved for him, but an unyielding sense of possibility steered him elsewhere. He worked hard in school and flourished. Scholastic excellence led to statewide recognition in standardized exams. Acknowledgement led to scholarships. And financial assurance led to the golden gates of this university.

As we embrace the lives ahead of us, let us always remember the magic of infinity. The ability to grow beyond our limits and create a difference lies within us. We must always have conviction in others, and we must always have conviction in ourselves!”

As the audience erupted into a thundering applause and caps went flying into the air, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had spoken from the deepest crevices of my heart. In the zealous energy of the American stadium, I could still hear the waves of the Ganges crashing softly against each other. I could still smell the sweetness of the rose jelly from the tin cans of the shop. I could still feel the burning sun on my now air-conditioned body.

As I stepped down, I realized I had forgotten my speech on the podium.

I glanced over and grabbed the notes I had made for my oration: a decade-old betel leaf with ∞ written upon it. I realized in the moment that I still did not need a writing utensil or a sheet of paper. All I needed was that same leaf, and the infinite belief in being able to go beyond whatever destiny had written for me.  

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