The pop in my soda

Zac o?Yeah | Updated on January 20, 2018

Calling out to local cola lovers in Madikeri, Karnataka   -  Zac O'Yeah

BLink02_Soda1.jpg   -  Zac O'Yeah

They may be shorn of advertising or marketing, but the fizz never goes out of local soft drinks, primarily because they taste of nostalgia

“Bottling day, mai dekkho hai, okay?” I do my best to communicate, in my rudimentary Hindi, with the elderly gent who mans the small cold drinks shop with its hand-painted, old-world signboard that says ‘Sunshine Bottling Co’.

It’s located in Madikeri’s market street, and whenever in town I stop for a drink — perhaps a hard-hitting ginger soda, maybe the mellow jeera soda when my tummy needs rest, and there’s also a wonderfully sunshine-yellow pineapple soda, apart from the standard range of cola, orange and lemon drinks. A bottle is ₹8, which is a bargain for the tasty explosion in one’s mouth. Okay, so what if I’m a fan of the Sunshine Bottling Company? Their stuff is addictive.

Then I hear the rattle of bottles from the backrooms behind the drinks stall — pop, rattle, pop, rattle — and realise that the beverages might actually be manufactured on the premises. The work is done by half-a-dozen women who bottle about a 1,000 cold drinks per week, I’m informed, and unfortunately I can’t watch it happen since I’m a man.

Another day, when it is a holiday for the women, I get to peek into the tidy, tiny rooms where bottles are cleaned and filled — basically concentrates that come from Mumbai, mixed with fizz and water. The bottling here started in the early 1980s and the drinks are only sold in the district of Kodagu (Coorg): that too not at tourist spots like Raja’s Seat where foreign brands rule, but in many of the smaller shops.

Small is truly beautiful, I’m convinced, because I’ve seen other unusual drink brands in shops hereabouts with names like Laxi, Red, Stuff, and Vita. They live on, despite the globalisation of the soft drink market.

It makes me think of how even the global brands, such as Coca-Cola, started as similar small products — cola was first sold in 1886 at a pharmacy in the US by the chemist John Pemberton. He thought that a mix of caffeine and cocaine might cure headaches. Diluted with soda water, people loved the peppy combo. During my travels in the US, as a junk food fan I had to go and see where the beverage was originally bottled, at 125 Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta, which is nowadays a National Historic Landmark Building while Coca-Cola has become perhaps the biggest brand name on earth with its own museum to prove it.

Multinationals control much of the bottled non-alcoholic beverage market in India, especially since Coca-Cola’s return in 1993 (after a 16-year ban) which saw an aggressive takeover of heritage beverages such as Thums-Up, Limca, Citra and Gold Spot, following which there was a noticeable dip in the production of homely soft drinks. Some of us Thums-Up fans kept on buying our favourite cola, spending so much on it that it was allowed to live on.

In spite of low advertising profiles and barely existent marketing, local soft drinks refuse to disappear, perhaps, primarily because they taste of nostalgia. I still recall the first sip I had of Campa-Cola, its logo looking deceptively similar to Coke but the flavour nuttier. These days the Campa brand has more or less fizzled out but a friend told me one might still find the odd bottle in cold drinks stalls in Haryana. Travelling in Gujarat, I see bottles of Sosyo offering locally loved flavours like lime and jeera. Around Madurai I prefer a gourmet drink called Bovonto: a grape soda which supposedly is the best accompaniment to spicy Tamil food. Going to the temple town of Udupi I nostalgically keep an eye out for Diana cola. Haven’t seen a bottle for ages, but I recall its welcoming slogan: Shake hands! The friendly Diana man was often hand-painted on walls around Udupi town in the 1990s.

In Kolkata, just the other day, I was served a soda called Cottons, proving that even big metros have localised brands. Here and there in Bengaluru one might come across the neon-coloured Torino orange soda. And in Parsi eateries in Mumbai, such as Military Café near Flora Fountain, you may order raspberry soda — the colour looks like an angry traffic light, but the flavour will give you a high. The raspberry soda is a genuine heritage drink: it dates back to the 1800s. In fact in nearby Pune, one particular soda factory from 1884 (making it two years senior to Coca-Cola), Ardheshir and Sons in Sharbathwala Chowk, produces purely Indian flavours such as raspberry and jeera.

I’ve also heard that there might be a paneer (rose water in Malayalam and Tamil) soda somewhere in the country, but I prefer to eat my paneer with palak, or tandoori-ed.

Whatever the case, these handcrafted drinks, though stuck in time warps, aren’t really that out of sync anymore if you consider that many big metros have seen a proliferation of micro-breweries: exceedingly expensive bars where a locally made beer costs (at the cheapest) ₹200 plus taxes. A local soda, at ₹8 for 200ml, does seem like a steal in comparison. The caveat is that you may have to travel to wherever the drink is bottled to get served by the manufacturer who will take it out of his own fridge. I’m okay with that as long as I can shake his hand, like with the Diana man.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist

Published on April 01, 2016

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