6121 Hillcroft St # M2
Houston, TX 77081
April 2004–After I parked my car with half shut eyes, which hadn’t quite woken up yet from a long night of silent dreams, I entered through the left door of the shop. As I walked in, a sweet creamy smell filled my lungs, without a second thought the words ” ahhh sweet drink of heaven” came to my mouth. Suddenly my eyes became wide open and everything was in clear view. The lights, the actress dancing to music on TV, the sound of the stick striking the ball on the snooker table, the silent strategies of the chess players, the agility in the arms and legs of the table tennis players, and the smashing of buttons from the arcade games towards the back. This is why I come here, to this place called Chatt & Paan.
Chatt & Paan is the name of a shop on the Southwest side of Houston . It was established in 1988 and has had the same location ever since (Noori). To many by passers the name doesn’t make sense and they probably don’t even care to stop by and see what the place actually is.
Chatt means spicy snack and Paan, a traditional South Asian delight, is a moist green leaf filled with a variety of toppings. These toppings vary in accordance to ones desire, it is then folded up in a triangle shape similar to the knot of a tie, and ready to eat. Some people like it sweet, some like it plain, and others prefer it with tobacco. I usually get the sweet one, which is loaded with shreds of coconut, betalnut, dry dates, aniseeds, cardamom, and 2 to 3 versions of a sweet jelly type substance that tastes like honey but with a scent of rose. Other toppings are available for extra flavor the names of which I can’t even translate. The key ingredient is a red liquid spread, which is pasted on the leaf first.
Today I had the usual, a cup of tea and then the paan. To get me up and awake coffee doesn’t work. It has to be tea (chai as we Pakistanis call it) and paan. The tea is hot, as I drink it I see the store getting busier. School must be out and workers who work nearby must be on lunch breaks. Almost all of the customers have one thing in common; they are foreigners from South Asian backgrounds, mainly that of Pakistan , and some from India and Bangladesh . These people are classified as “Desi”, in their own words. The owners originally from Pakistan , brought the culture of the east to the west. Back home places like these are many.
Over here it’s the hangout place for boys and men. No ladies come due to the atmosphere of the place. Here one can always expect to see tough attitudes and hear rough language, usually the younger generations display this behavior. In other words this is sort of like a country or golf club where men come together and socialize. They come here for indoor sports, smoking, talking to friends, watching television, to buy phone cards, or just to have something to eat before going off to their destinations. Chatt & Paan holds a variety of games, chess for the brainstormers, snooker for the target shooters, table tennis for the quick and stamina full, and an arcade section for the electronic lovers. You can go in and start playing either with friends or strangers. Weekly tournaments are held to see who is the real champ among them.
As I sip tea I look around to see what is going on. To my right there are four tables lined up with chessboards. A group of people are surrounding 2 players. To my surprise I know one of them, he is Yaseen, a fellow from the same town back home. He is in his late 20’s. I can see a glimpse of tension in his thoughts. His teeth are stained red, like that of a lion that has freshly killed his prey. This is not blood, it’s the color left in the mouth after eating too much paan. His opponent seems to be in his 40’s and much wiser. His left elbow is on the table, his head supported by his left palm, and between two fingers on the other hand, he’s holding gently a burning cigarette giving rise to miniature smoke clouds. I wonder if it helps him think or is the continuous puffing of smoke a sign of tension as well. On the left of me I hear singing from the snooker table. A group of teenagers are having a showdown. One player is mad at the other because of the continuous singing done by him. The other claims his singing is responsible for him missing the shot. But the boy continues to sing the song, which sounds sad and talks about a disappointed lover who goes far away across the oceans. Right to the back of the room are the tables of tennis. The tables are empty at this hour due to the cricket match about to start on dish network. The TV set is hung on the wall, usually showing Bollywood movies (Bollywood is the entertainment industry of India ), songs, dramas, from Pakistan and India , and sports events from all over the world.
I hear a group of people talking about the cricket matches between Pakistan and India , most awaited match in the world of cricket. Cricket fans from England , Holland , UAE, Zimbabwe , South Africa , Sri Lanka to as far as Australia and New Zealand tune into this event. During this season is when the shop is most crowded as people stay up all night to cheer for their team. A cricket match usually goes on for about 6 hours long. People stay up all night due to the different time zones of Europe, Asia, and Africa , where cricket is often played.
As I finish my tea I head back towards the counter and ask the man behind the counter for a paan.
I said: “Bhai saab ek paan dena” – Brother, one paan please!
He said: “kesa chalayga?” – How would you like it?
I said: “Meetha aur khushboodaar, maska laga ke” – Sweet, strong and full of taste.
Meanwhile as he prepares the paan my attention goes to the left side of the room, where there is a black chalkboard on a white painted wall. The board has names on it with the current scores from the snooker tournaments. From the doors a group of 3-4 high schoolers walked in. One asked for a cigarette, he was young and easily looked underage, and the owner showed anger and refused to sell without identification. He said in a strict solid unbendable type voice, “I’ve said to you many times… NO I.D! NO CIGARETTE!”
The youngster ashamed and shy replies with an apology “sorry uncle, I forgot” and asks if he and his friends can play table tennis. The owner gives them the equipment in exchange for money. Traditionally youngsters call elders, either strangers or people whom they know, “uncle”, even though they have no relation to each other whatsoever. As they head towards the back of the room to play, something occurs to me, I’ve seen one of them somewhere. He goes to Lee High School where my brother also attends.
I got my paan from the man and decided to eat it a little bit later when I get home. My departure will change nothing, people will be coming in and out all day and all night. Evenings are usually the busiest. They stay open till 2 am mostly and even longer if there are any sport tournaments.
Chatt & Paan is located in a shopping strip, on Hillcroft. Fast food chains are on both sides of the roads. The shopping strip in which Chatt & Paan is located consists of a variety of shops, a beauty parlor, a travel agency, a video store, a Pakistani and a Chinese restaurant. Coming from 59 you would take the Hillcroft exit, and if coming from the south make a right on Hillcroft; if coming from the north side of town take a left on Hillcroft. Keep continuing on this road and after the first set of lights make a left hand turn into the shopping center.
Hillcroft is in the Southwest part of town and it’s an area where a mixture of people are always seen. The area is not fancy or high class, but it is made up of middle working class people and small shop owners who have made Hillcroft a representation of Houston . The people here have promoted diversity in opening up shops serving exotic taste. These people, mainly but not all, are Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs, Persians, Mexicans, Chinese, and Americans.
Chatt & Paan is one place that represents diversity of Houston. It is a symbol of multiethnic Houston that displays its uniqueness by the culture it nourishes. It is a representation of Pakistani culture in the state of Texas . Anyone can come here and enjoy this atmosphere and get to know Houston for what its known for, the cultural diversity. Places like these give everyone an opportunity to learn, respect, and accept cultures different from our own.