The only goli soda bottle manufacturing unit in the country has stopped production. Does it mean goodbye to a childhood memory for many in the city?
“Paathu, paathu — careful!” says an agitated Balakrishnan. The few minutes I hold the thick, translucent bottle for a photograph are torturous for him and his team at Vasu Soda Company, Mylapore. They watch over the bottle like hawks; my every movement is being scrutinised. I respectfully return it to its dwelling — a wooden crate into which it slips with a clink to rub shoulders with its waiting mates.
This is the treatment a bottle of goli soda elicits today. The shapely bottle is comfortable to hold. Fingers easily grip the curves below the bottle’s neck; it is heavy; you know it has travelled long and far as you take a sip of sweet panner soda from the thick, smooth mouth. The green-coloured goli, the single, most important component of the soda that holds the gas in, talks to you as it tinkles against the bottle every time you bring it to your mouth.
What is it saying? Good-bye perhaps?
The last few goli soda manufacturers in the city feel so. Says D. Balakrishnan: “It has been several months since we got new soda bottle supplies. To make-up for the numbers, we are filling soda in regular cork bottles.” The 75-year-old has been in the business ever since a bottle of soda cost half anna. “We did roaring business then,” he recalls. On festivals such as Deepavali and Pongal when people ate their stomach’s fill, they would amble to the street-corner shop late in the afternoon for a drink of goli soda.
Today, soft-drinks have replaced the humble goli soda and manufacturers are helplessly watching their customers switch loyalties. It has been six months since a consignment of fresh bottles arrived from Sasni, a town in Uttar Pradesh. “I don’t know what I’ll do once I run out of bottles,” says Balakrishnan. “On average, some 12 bottles break in a day,” he adds.
“I have just about 363 goli bottles left,” says V.R. Kanniappan of Scott & Company, Triplicane. “Will I be able to sustain for another five years? If stock doesn’t arrive, I doubt it,” he shakes his head. Goli soda manufacturers in the city who once supplied to hundreds of shops in their locality cater to less than half the number today.
Ask any of them and they would blame the soft-drink giants who ate into their market from the 1990s. “They advertised their products very well, where as we didn’t. They gave away plenty of offers and refrigerators to shopkeepers free of charge,” he adds. The refrigerators were a huge hit. “And our bottles were thick; they took up more space and electricity to be cooled.”
Kanniappan recalls how manufacturers such as him made their own cooler boxes out of thermocol for goli soda. “But shopkeepers had to pay for the ice. This meant extra expenses.” Today, Kanniappan’s company works only on alternate days for lack of work and manual labour.
But he is hopeful. “If the bottle production starts again, our business has a chance of picking up,” he feels. S. Mayilvel of Vela & Company, Royapettah, has branched into apple, masala, ginger, nannari, orange, and lime flavoured sodas to improve its customer base. “Goli soda does have its own fan following. But if we don’t get fresh bottles, the drink could become extinct,” he says.
Mayilvel has some 1,000 goli bottles that he fiercely protects. These bottles are long-lasting investments; the cork in a regular bottle costs anything between 35paise to 75paise each, which has to be replaced every time a bottle is popped open.
P. Saravanan of Swati Agencies, a city-based dealer who supplies goli soda bottles to companies across the city says the current dearth of bottles will soon come to an end. “I visited the unit in Sasni last month. There is a leakage in the furnace which will soon get fixed,” he says. Saravanan assures that production will start in the coming months. But Kanniappan will stop biting his nails only when the supplies actually arrive. With each passing day, he counts down the last few bottles he is left with.