What gives Chennai its zing? Goli soda or ‘nannari sharbat’?

Goli soda

Deep within Royapettah, in a bylane dotted with modest houses, small-scale industries, and the odd grocery store, I sipped goli soda at a bottling unit called Vela Company. The drink was served at room temperature, but tasted like heaven. I had the panneer or rose water flavour, probably the first artificial flavour introduced in the country. Inside Vela’s dark interiors, bottle after bottle was being filled up, which ‘line men’ distributed to shops nearby.

Goli soda — the thick olive green bottle with a marble at the neck to hold the gas in — is rural India in a bottle. Hop off a bus in any part of the city, and head to the nearest streetside juice cart, and you will find it standing in a row, the bottles gleaming emerald in the sun. A bottle costs less that ₹10, and comes with some extra entertainment.

Popping open the goli soda on a hot day using your thumb, and taking that first sip to the background score of the tinkling marble, makes you feel like you’re Rajinikanth after a fight scene.

Goli soda mostly comes in two flavours — plain and panneer. It’s simple and easy to grab on-the-go; you needn’t wait twiddling your thumbs as you will if you’d ordered a glass of nannari sherbet to be made. With nannari, the end product depends solely on the right measure of the syrup; but the goli soda comes packed with the right amount of flavour and sweetness.

There’s a reason why it continues to find favour even today. For many, goli soda brings back memories — of downing many bottles at the college canteen or a temple festival. Who’s not a sucker for nostalgia?

Akila Kannadasan has long been wanting to ‘accidentally’ forget to return the gorgeous goli soda bottle after drinking it.

Nannari sharbat

Chennai’s humidity doesn’t just exhuast me. It does way more. It makes me feel less human, more puddle of molten existence made up of everything that had drained out of me, from back when I used to be a functional person. I miss that person sometimes, I probably won’t see her till the December rains.

So when I am in that state, I don’t want to go wrestling with balls stuck atop glass bottles before I even get to take a sip. I don’t need a bunch of flavour options and mouthful of carbonated fizz. I need something simple. Something that will not only hydrate me, but also clear my head and help pull myself together. Something sweet enough for comfort, but with a hint of tart that will snap you alert again. Enter: nannari sharbat.

For a herbal drink made from roots, the sharbat looks more appetising than it has any right to. Usually a brownish-orange at the crossroads of fire and rust, it can change hues under the expert hands of certain roadside vendors to a pale, inviting pink.

In fact, that version even looks a little bit like rose wine, but tastes way better. If light, soury-sweet, breezy-summery is the type of drink you prefer. I know I do. It is a drink that reminds me exactly where I am: of the soil beneath me, the sea close at hand and the breeze trying to gentle ruffle my hair (which is weighed down with sweat, so it can’t).

It tells me I am in Chennai.

— That odd noise your AC makes in peak summer is actually the sound of Meghna Majumdar’s dehydrated spirit, skulking inside in search of a cold space to rest in.

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