Apart from the number of green cycle-carts parked outside the house on Srinivasa Road, off PV Koil street in Chennai's Mylapore, there are no other clues to what’s inside the building. You might easily drive past its ordinary-looking facade, unmindful of the sound of clanking bottles.
But if you were to open its powder-blue steel gates and walk inside, you’d be engulfed by a symphony of sounds.
The aura inside is that of an orchestra practising for a big concert. But every day, the notes are the same - the clinking and clanging of glasses accompanied by the sploshing of water, punctuated with the timed ‘fittzz’ of compressed air entering the bottles.
A stacked-up pile of colourful plastic crates on one side and a number of wooden cartons filled with thick snouted goli-soda bottles on the other, frame the entrance to one of the very few goli-soda makers still functioning in the city. We are at the Vasu Soda Company.
The men working inside function like well-oiled cogs. In swift actions, they clean, mix and fill crates and crates of soda - some flavoured, some in bottles with the iconic goli.
Seated inside his small office that perhaps serves as a make-shift store space, D Balakrishnan carefully counts and enters the amount he has just received from one of his commission workers. A small window with tall grills lets him keep tab of what happens outside his office.
“My father used to sell goli-soda from RS Mohan Soda Company for a commission. The factory was located at Nagapaiyar Street, now called Mayor Chitti Babu Street. This was way back in 1957 when one bottle of soda was sold at half anna (3.125 naya paise) and one sovereign of gold was sold at Rs 58,” laughs Balakrishnan.
This was also the time when these soda manufacturers were huge in the city. Kalimark had not yet set shop in Chennai and corporate players like Coke and Pepsi hadn't entered the market. Goli-soda was the go-to thirst quencher for city folks.
From being commission workers, Balakrishnan’s family grew to open their own factories in 1975. “We took a small building and started the business here in Mylapore. My brothers set up small units in Nanganallur and Saidapet, both of which are not functioning today.”
Balakrishnan shares that in the '70s, the city had close to 500 soda manufacturers. “There were 100 corporation division and you could say each had about five goli-soda makers.”
The number today stands at less than 30 (within city limits) says Balakrishnan. “In those days, during festivals and especially after a good feast, people sought the soda to make them feel comfortable and relieved. Today there's Coke and Pepsi, in even smaller, disposable bottles. Business isn't what it used to be for sure,” he says.
Balakrishnan also sounds worried about the cost and availability of goli-soda bottles. “One goli-soda bottle today costs Rs 75 and it all comes from one maker in UP. It's getting very difficult for us to get them sometimes. We recently purchased 100 bottles after a long wait,” he says.
Vasu Soda sells four different flavours of goli-soda - Orange, Cola, Lemon and Paneer in addition to plain soda. Due to the low availability of goli bottles, they also use the normal glass bottles they can lay their hands on.
“In summer we can hope to sell 1000 bottles per day but it’s almost closed shutters for us during the rainy season. Occasionally, we get bulk orders from big hotels or from people who want to organise private parties. But on such occasions, even the autos that come to pick up our cartons for delivery charge more than our bottles,” he says, with a laugh.
How does the goli pop?
The goli-soda bottle goes through quite a process before you can pop it and let out all that fizz. If it's a flavoured soda, a flavoured sugar syrup is added in right proportion to the bottle. The bottle is then filled with carbonated water, while being flipped in a machine.
Once the bottles are filled, they are packed in crates and dropped off at small shops by people who work on commission. Balakrishnan sells the drink at Rs 5 per bottle (the bottles are re-used) and the retailer might choose to price it at any range. "Big restaurants can even charge up to Rs 100," he says.
Goli-soda bottles have now become ornamental - a stray bottle on a bookshelf makes for a good photograph. Balakrishnan shares that they are also being exported. And then there are the nostalgia lovers who ask for it at small, corner shops. One day the young hippies might revolt against the big corporates and bring back the soda with a vengeance. Until then, the small factory in Mylapore will continue to compose - shall we call it the “soda-symphony”?