City City Bang Bang, Columns

On the wild charms of masala soda

As cities grow, some essential parts of it go into hiding. The street stalls retreat into the inner folds of the new city, local ice cream vendors (for some reason called Mewad Prem across large parts of the country) turn coy and cede ground to nationally known brands, the baraf ka gola with its luscious layers of colourful flavours are banished into the exile of outdated and unhygienic practice, men on cycles with loud bells promising to sharpen knives or re-fluff our razaais thin out from the more affluent localities, varieties of street food gradually become legends found only on food shows and perhaps most importantly we don’t find masala soda vendors on our roads.

Growing up in middle class India, soda was an occasional treat. Tired of the exquisite cool balance of nimbu pani, and denied the exotic charms of orange squash (only for important guests), every now and then we strayed into the wanton arms of nimbu soda. Made from a simple concoction of lime, some chaat masala and bante-wala soda (the bottle with the marble stuck inside it), the drink delivered a surprisingly strong kick. Soda activated what was hitherto docile and sweet into something wild and feral. It allowed us to douse our throats with something searingly potent, wipe our slightly masala encrusted lips with the back of our hands and go aaaahh with a sense relief too deeply located to be identified with any part of the body. The pleasure was experienced twice over- as the liquid burned a hole down our chests and as the gas effervesced its way out.

For soda was a permissible foray into hot-bloodedness, something we were allowed to indulge in, notwithstanding its ability to re-order the civilised molecular equilibrium of stability ever so temporarily. It made us feel alive as it hit the right spots and shook us out of the torpor induced by a relentless summer that baked us into slowness. It was not merely refreshing, it was deeply energising in its own unsettling way. It multiplied the bite of the lemon in an exponential manner till it became something that corroded the throat as it went down. A nimbu-soda has all the finesse of a home-made bomb, with crude, readily available and altogether ordinary ingredients combining chemically to produce devastating effect. It disappeared even as it burned its way down leaving us the legacy of a burp or two. In many ways, we didn’t drink the soda; it was the soda that consumed us. The lime gave it bite, a hint of cruelty that makes things interesting while the masala made it pleasurably Indian. In some ways, the masala spoke to the Indian penchant for turning all foods into a form of chaat.

Soda drew its power from two different sources. The first was its form, its ability to effervesce with latent potency. Soda is all intent, with very little content, a powerful medium without a coherent message. The seemingly innocuous water-like appearance hides an explosive wildness that gets unleashed when the bottle is opened. The act of opening a bottle of soda is akin to setting free a genie seething in claustrophobic anger, only to awaken avid with intent. Soda represents the unanticipated belligerence of the ordinary; the possession of the otherwise placid water by a fit of red-eyed road rage. The combination of sleepy passivity in appearance and snarling energy in action allowed soda to be legitimate while providing a measure of wildness to its drinkers.

The other source of its power perhaps lay in its association with alcohol. The darkness associated with alcohol rubbed off on its accomplice and soda got imbued with some of the aura of sinfulness that inevitably surrounded ‘hard drinks’. Soda amplified with the dark power of whisky, it allowed alcohol to showcase its potency in a vividly visual way. When we drank soda we were allowed to consume sin from a detached but visible distance. Vice sparkled in a whisky and soda, and the ice added mystery.

A whisky and soda simmered with masculine portent, with the soda allowing the whisky to slide out of the brooding layers of its murky liquidness and attach itself to the our insides, alive, brandishing purpose. As a delivery vehicle for alcohol, it was both respectful and impatient, trading off its complexity for a quicker, more palpable hit. Soda made the whiskey fire crackle, both in the glass and in the stomach.

The key to the allure of most soft drinks today lies in part at least to the fizzy power of soda. Without aeration, beverages turn stately and offer nutrition and other forms of maternally approved goodness. Motorcycle madness is replaced by scooter pragmatism, vitamins are clocked, minerals are imputed, and much measured sipping takes place. The pour down the throat is outlawed, and bright colours are needed to lure us into the docile arms of juices and shakes, all pretty with purpose.

In an India that is no longer as passive as it was, and which finds stimulation in many other ways, soda by itself may not serve the purpose it once did, but it is an intrinsic part of our everyday life. Step out of any cocooned metropolis, and soda is everywhere. Nothing neutralises the summer as well as it does and nothing produces energy without discernible content as dramatically as it does. It is instructive that in the meantime, our attitudes towards alcohol have also undergone a sea change. Alcohol is no longer the grim escape it once was; it is instead an enabler of good times. Soda today perhaps draws its meaning not so much from its bottled power but the spirit of restless and directionless energy that it adds to our life.