On a warm afternoon in March, K Ravichandran scooped up a mildly viscous amber liquid in a small jug and offered it to the crowd at his soda shop in Adambakkam, West Chennai.
“You should taste our panneer soda,” he said, beaming proudly through his rimmed spectacles. “People come from far off and parcel packets of it.”
Ravichandran turns panneer, Tamil for rose essence, into soda in a whirlwind of flashing steel, gushing taps, and clinking tumblers. In a series of swift motions, he mixes the rose essence with a sweet syrup, adding water and soda in proportions only he knows how to get right. He juggles the liquid a few more times, before handing out tumblers brimming with the frothy, sweet-smelling soda drink. Panneer soda is the concoction that kick-started his small soda shop more than 33 years ago.
“The popularity of Coke and Pepsi isn’t the reason why the local soda industry has declined,” he said. “It is just that many of us haven’t done our jobs well enough. If you don’t look at only profit when you do your job, you will do it well.”
Ravichandran’s tiny shop managed to remain in business, while many others shut down over the last 10 years in Tamil Nadu.
Ravi’s Soda Factory, as the shop is called, is among the few stores left in Chennai dedicated solely to making and selling a variety of carbonated and milk-based beverages. Frequented by people across age groups, class and caste, Ravi’s Soda Factory sees a steady flow of customers in the summer, demanding cool lemon soda, sweet jamun milk or the shop’s most popular beverage—the panneer soda.
Although panneer soda rarely makes it to the shelves of large, organised grocery chains or eateries, it can be found in old glass bottles stacked outside small newspaper shops selling betel leaves and cigarettes. The rose-flavoured soda is a staple roadside drink in Tamil Nadu, but Ravichandran knows how to blend it to perfection. In the summer months, the beverage is often created in households across the state; it is also a common mixer for alcoholic drinks, particularly toddy.
Many corner shops do not sell Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Fanta or other branded soft drinks at all. Along the narrow, bustling streets of Mylapore in Chennai, plastic beverage crates are lined with reused glass bottles filled with the locally-brewed panneer soda and lemon juice.
“Unless I order at least 10 boxes of Coca-Cola every day, I won’t be supplied with their products,” said 62-year-old SA Ajeesh, who manages a shop set up by his father 45 years ago. “But I can’t sell so much every day, so why even buy?”
Even if Ajeesh scaled his business up in the near future, he would not be likely to stock the big cola brands—two of Tamil Nadu’s largest trader’s associations have been boycotting Coca-Cola and Pepsi since March 01. There has been growing resentment against the two multinational companies in the state for selling unhealthy products and sucking the Thamirabarani river dry. In a bid to promote local soft drinks manufacturers, the traders’ associations have encouraged shopkeepers to stop stocking Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
And it does not look like the cola giants are missed much.
“I cannot have the new soft drinks, they are too strong and make me feel almost intoxicated,” said S Shekhar, a 60-year-old flower seller in the Mylapore area of central Chennai. “Panneer soda has mild fizz and a really good taste. When I have it, I feel fresh and satisfied.”
Panneer soda, like other local drinks, has a set of loyal customers. In its past avatar, the drink was sold in a popular goli bottle with a rubber stopper.
In the early 1990s, when Thums Up and Gold Spot were the only other cold beverages available in Chennai, Santosh and his friends used to love popping open the rubber stopper of a cheap goli soda bottle. A small marble, the goli, would block the neck of the bottle when it was full and would settle at the bottom once the bottle was empty.
“It was just something that we used to drink for fun because we liked the sound of it [opening the bottle],” said Santosh.
Despite their fascinating design, goli bottles became hard to find about a decade ago. Soda sellers offer several reasons for this—some said foreign soft drinks replaced goli sodas, others said customers preferred drink bottles which they could take away with them, unlike the rubber-stoppered glass bottles, which had to be returned to the shopkeeper.
Ravichandran shifted from goli bottles to steel tumblers eight years ago, because no one wanted the tedious and dangerous job of preparing the drink in soda bottles. After filling the soda bottle with the essence, water and carbon dioxide, it had to be fitted into a simple wooden machine and twirled manually so that the carbon dioxide mixed well with the water.
“Every day at least one bottle would break and somebody would get hurt,” said Ravichandran. “During warm summers, the bottles would suddenly burst. Also, when gang wars broke out onto the streets, people would run into our shop to grab soda bottle as weapons. We had to close the shutters immediately and run.”
With fewer goli bottles in circulation, the supply of panneer soda also dropped over the years. But while goli bottles may not be worth the trouble for shopkeepers, local soft drink companies are expected to bring traditional flavours back with new vigour.
One such local firm is the 100-year-old Tamil Nadu-based soft drink company Kalimark. Though popular for its grape-flavoured soft drink Bovonto, Kalimark also sells ginger, orange, lemon and rose flavoured drinks.
Last year, Kalimark decided to give panneer soda a brand new look. Instead of the old colourless bottle, Kalimark presented the drink in lavender packaging with a new name—Vibro.
“To market our product in cities, we wanted the name to be a little stylish,” said M Lakshminarayanan, the marketing manager of Kalimark in Tirunelveli. “But in southern Tamil Nadu cities like Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari, we still sell it under the name panneer soda. It is an all-time favourite in these places.”
Even though the new packaging has boosted sales for panneer soda, many customers have not forgotten how more than two decades ago, Kalimark goli soda bottles were carted through the narrow streets in Tamil Nadu towns. The tinkling sound of the soda-seller’s bell would bring children running out onto the streets, urging their parents to buy them a soda.
“This was one distinct thing that Kalimark used to do at that time,” said AM Aditya, a 31-year-old chartered accountant. “If you ask anyone who is in the city today who has spent a good part of their time in small towns and districts, they will have a story about how on hot summer days, panneer soda came freshly delivered to their doorsteps.”